THE BLOG
08/12/2013 07:17 pm ET Updated Oct 12, 2013

Management Isn't a Quest for Scapegoats

"Sometimes, people don't know how to do their jobs."

Recently, a friend and colleague said this to me, and it struck me as so profound that I wrote it on my conference room whiteboard. Since then, I've been thinking about this, and its implications to my work.

When people don't know how to do their jobs, they're pretty good at hiding it. Some people, in fact, have developed so much skill at looking like they're busy and like they know what they're doing, that honing that skill becomes a more important survival technique than actually getting better at what they're actually supposed to be doing.

I've met a few like that -- and I've talked with a very large number of people who claim to have worked with some, too. If you believe the most skeptical people (and statistics), there's a sizable population of employees out there who don't have much idea what's going on, and who get by largely by looking hectically busy and useful to others too overwhelmed to notice the deception.

This creates a depressing value proposition for leaders, managers and consultants, and it's one I avoid like the plague: A sort of expertise in witch hunting, helping organizations to ferret out and eliminate employees who don't know what they're doing, or who don't work efficiently.

At least, I try to avoid it -- both the elimination and the hunt itself. Instead, I work on implementing repeated, observable patterns of behavior -- "organizational culture," that is -- to create higher output and lower stress. This means I encourage people to spend more energy on things like understanding required output, quantifying likelihood of success, and communicating resource needs than they do on things like looking busy and sounding successful in front of management.

It doesn't take a sociologist to realize that in doing this, I'm encouraging my clients to demonstrate some principles behaviorally; productivity instead of busyness, honesty instead of deception, and information instead of spin are just a few of them. Human organizations run on the platform of these principles and behaviors can produce amazing results that go far, far beyond what any of the members could have produced alone. In the process, such organizational cultures can't help but encourage real employee development in place of hiding out, because they need everyone at their best. These become the environments where it's not only appropriate but actually laudable to ask for help in getting better at one's job.

Don't say it. I already know some people out there don't want this. They don't want to be accountable, or productive; they just want to hide and get paid. I don't have any qualms stating that organizations should be able to identify such people, deliver some pretty strong corrective messages, and remove them if necessary. I also know that often, those people remove themselves once it's clear that accountability and productivity aren't just fads.

I'm not naïve, but I am optimistic. I believe -- and I'm not without data or corroboration -- that those particular people represent a very small fraction of the workforce. The few employees who hide and get by on appearance because they don't want to work are outnumbered by many others who hide and get by on appearance because that's what the system -- the culture -- requires. The members of this second, larger group aren't malicious manipulators at all. When they're forced to work that way, they're not particularly happy about it. They may not say so out loud, but they'd be a lot happier if the environment encouraged them to contribute rather than to hide out.

In that way, I must admit, my work does drive some attention to who is or isn't adding value. But it's not a witch hunt for the inefficient and lazy. Rather, it's a way of getting the system organized around principles of productivity and transparency and allowing it to function properly. Then, the majority does its best and asks for help when needed, while a tiny minority -- who doesn't want to do so -- mostly self-selects out.

If you find yourself in the role of leadership or management, and on a witch hunt for ineffective employees, please reconsider. Your aim may be noble -- to make the organization more nimble and more successful -- but your method is problematic. Whether managed internally or externally, quests seeking scapegoats make everyone fear for their own survival. This fear encourages employees to keep quiet and not draw attention to themselves, which means becoming progressively less likely to ask for help when needed, leading to more inefficiency, and thereby more quests. It's a downward spiral.

More importantly, perhaps, the need itself indicates a deeper problem. If it's not utterly obvious when someone underperforms over time, the organization isn't attending to the right things. A changed and potentially sharpened focus is needed. Such change takes time and attention, both of which are scarce enough even when not wasted on scapegoat hunting.

If you still think your job is to run around finding and eliminating low performers, consider this: Witch hunts create a less capable workforce, and distract you from the type of improvements you need to solve your problems. Witch hunts beget more witch hunts. And repeated behaviors, observed by others, get repeated even more and become the culture.

So if you're a leader or manager caught in this downward spiral, you're doing three things: First, you're making your team progressively less competent. Second, you're wasting time that would be better spent on real improvements and more important work. Third, you're teaching your own management, through repetition, that they too should seek out and punish people overseeing incompetence and wasting effort.

People, that is, like you.

Ouch.

"Sometimes, people don't know how to do their jobs." That's what my friend said, and I think he's right. We'd better get started creating an environment that will help them to figure it out, before we become them, too.