Saturday, 14 December 2013

Militant "Not Guilty!"

I am standing next to a CEO as he reads the problem-solving board of a project, at a workplace. Once a day, the project leader takes the time to get one of his team to describe:

  1. a problem
  2. its cause
  3. an immediate countermeasure
  4. the status (how well the countermeasure is doing)
Once again, the CEO points out that the "so-and-so screwed up" is not a cause. The cause is "so-and-so meant to do well, something happened and they made a choice which, it turned out, created a problem. The issue is what happened to distract them? The work was not laid out properly? A component was missing and they took another? Instuctions were unclear and they did what they thought was best? There was too much pressure to finish so they botched the job? As he does this, the project leader usually squirms - causes inevitably come back to a management laps. No surprise.

Blaming others to distance oneself from screw-ups is a perfectly natural reaction. It is also incredibly destructive in any social group as it breeds enmity, suspiscion and distrut. The latter is probably the greatest souce of economic (and well-being) waste. As Keynes once argued, confidence is a muliplier (conversely, lack of confidence is a devider) economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller argue that confidence is about fairness and trust in good faith of others (as well as "the money illusion" - which is the belief the value of money remains constant).

Even if the employee did screw up because of laziness, sloppiness or soldiering on, we're all the heroes of our own movies, so they will think tha being blamed is unfair and bosses are in bad faith (whether deserved or not). To be fair, as managers, we give plenty of unconscious opportunities for people to have hard anchored belief about how unfair we are. I, myself, am often accused of telling others to "do as I say and not do as I do", regardless of how I feel about it as I personally feel I'm a rather consistent person.

Which is why this CEO impresses me in his militancy to express "not guilty". When we discuss serious problems, I'm usually the first to give in and say, "oh, come on, you know they screwed up - if you can't change the people, you change the people." He then falls silent. It's not that he disagrees - he just WON'T GO THERE. There is another way of fixing the problem without fixing the blame. As Bob Dylan once said: "no fear, no envy, no meanness."

"Not guilty" is not a nicey-nicey concept. It's a militant one. When the going gets tough, it's tough to keep to the not guilty stand and not start looking for heads to cut." Sophocles wrote "no one loves the messenger who brings bad news" - shooting the messenger has been with us way before Shakespeare coined the expression. Asking "why?" not "who?" is not just kinder - it's also wiser.


  1. Great insight that can only be learnt at the Gemba

  2. Excellent story. Only a leader who is secure in themselves and trusts in the problem solving process could embody this way of removing fear in the workplace.