(This article was originally published in the York County Coast Star on November 15, 2012)
My friend Terry is a successful sales executive — in spite of the fact that the employees of his company actively work against him. No, they don’t dislike him or try to overtly sabotage him. What they do is much worse — they refuse to give him the information he needs to make a sale and the president of the company encourages this behavior. It’s crazy.
When I first heard this, I couldn’t believe it. Why would the president deliberately sanction behavior that undermines the growth and success of his own company? A little background:
Terry works for a firm that specializes in printing, mailing and archiving critical documents, primarily for financial institutions. This includes the design and delivery of bank statements, electronic statements, bank checks, etc. It’s all pretty sophisticated and technical.
To help these customers, Terry must work with their executives, IT professionals and the purchasing department to understand their needs. Then he meets with his own company’s employees to help him prepare a quote for a specific job, and this is where the problems begin. You see, to generate an accurate proposal he needs to know how long it will take for programming, production and shipping to do the job. Mistakes made here can be very costly, so Terry and the other sales executives depend on the people who know this stuff. But, when he goes to the respective company managers for input, he finds them reluctant to provide him this essential information. They force Terry to figure this all out by himself.
When I heard this I was shocked and asked why they would refuse to do their jobs. Turns out, if an employee makes a mistake on a quote, let’s say they estimate it will take less time to do the job than it actually does, there is hell to pay. The president will come running down to the offices and production floor demanding to know who made the mistake that cost him money! And after he gathers everyone who scatters when they hear his footsteps, the finger pointing begins. Eventually the culprit is identified, publicly scolded and appropriately threatened. Terry tells me that after this happened a few times, these managers and employees quickly learned the safe thing to do is not to provide Terry and the other sales executive the information they need to do their jobs. As dysfunctional and counterproductive as this is, I unfortunately see this kind of behavior in lots of different organizations.
When a manager’s first response to a mistake is to determine blame, rather than to problem solve to find a solution, they “train” their employees to duck and cover. After all, no one wants to be publicly pillaged for an honest mistake.
Managers need to understand how the mistake was made in the first place. What happened? Is it a systems problem, training issue or breakdown in communications? Are other people making the same mistakes? Blaming a person is an easy reaction for managers to make, but often leads to more mistakes.
When problems occur and mistakes are made, managers should focus on correction rather than blame. Solutions ensure improvement and minimize similar mistakes in the future. Fault finding destroys the process. If a mistake is made, correct it. Playing the blame game shuts people down, thwarts innovation and teamwork, and kills productivity and employee engagement.
Yes, managers must hold their employees accountable for their performance. But when employees would rather let a fellow employee fail rather than risk making a mistake themselves, then something is terribly wrong. Self-preservation should never be the first thing an employees feels when doing their job.
Mistakes happen. While no company should ever tolerate excessive error making, how it responds to them will determine how quickly they are corrected and how fast employees will learn not to make them. Accountability is essential — bloodletting is not.
Terry has been able to survive and be successful in this organization in spite of how the president runs his company. Yet he acknowledges that there has been a lot of business lost, money left on the table, and missed opportunities because employees learned that doing nothing was a better strategy for them, than risking a mistake. And that’s one mistake companies should never make.
Rick Dacri is a workforce expert, management consultant, and author of the book “Uncomplicating Management: Focus On Your Stars & Your Company Will Soar.” Since 1995 his firm, Dacri & Associates has helped organizations improve individual and organizational performance. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org and www.dacri.com.