You Can’t Afford to Blame Your Workforce


You Can’t Afford to Blame Your Workforce

When something goes wrong, the very first thing we want to do is assign blame. It’s human nature. We want to hold people accountable for their actions, and we want to punish bad behavior. We hate to see “bad” people get away with things, and it’s our instinct to seek justice, even revenge.

I’m here to tell you that you can’t afford to assign blame.

Don’t get me wrong. No entrepreneur or management professional can ignore the necessity and crucial role of incentives. Some actions deserve a lecture or disciplinary action. Some are worth losing a job over. But none of them are worth assigning blame.

Let me explain what I mean.

When you assign blame, you are taking the responsibility off of everybody else, and more importantly, off of yourself, for what went wrong. Some in management will take this to its logical extreme: blaming their entire workforce when things go catastrophically wrong. This might feel good, but it does nothing to resolve the problem.

The only appropriate response to “failure” (if you believe in such a thing) is to analyze the process that led to it. If a catastrophic error is made, it’s not useful to blame the employee that made it. There are more important questions to ask:

    • Was the employee competent enough to avoid the error? If not, why were they doing that job?
    • Was the employee informed enough to avoid the error? If not, why wasn’t that knowledge made available to them?
    • Did the employee break a rule? If so, did the rule need to be there? If so, why did they break it? Was an incentive problem at fault? Was a hiring problem at fault?
    • Were their signs that this error was going to be made? Why wasn’t anything done to prevent the error? Why didn’t anybody else take action?
    • Is the error in question actually responsible for the problem at hand? Do you have evidence linking this error to the problem that you care about, or is it conjecture? Do you understand your underlying business processes well enough to draw the conclusions that you have?
    • Was a morale issue responsible for the error? If so, why is there a morale issue, and what can you do to resolve it?
    • Was the error actually preventable? Is the real issue the error itself, or the way that your business processes led your workforce to respond to the error?
    • Was this error the result of an accepted risk you took, believing that the benefits outweighed the risk? If so, do you need to reevaluate your risks, or do you just need to accept that this is part of the cost of doing business, and move on?


The point of all of these questions is not to reassign blame or to put the blame on everybody, including yourself. The point is to take the blame off of human beings in general, and assign it to faulty processes. This eliminates the emotional attachment you have to the situation, and allows you to approach it rationally.

As I said before, there is nothing wrong with disciplinary actions. There is something wrong with disciplinary actions if they only exist for catharsis. Disciplinary actions are incentives, nothing more. If they do nothing to fix your processes, they are pointless.

Where might such flaws exist? Here are a few examples:

    • Incentives might be off, or may seem arbitrary. For example, an incentive that rewards sales or revenue will ignore profit margins, and may produce a workforce that sells loss leaders. Similarly, bonuses or disciplinary actions for things that employees can’t directly control will only create anxiety in the workforce. Such incentives might also encourage employees to undercut each other and might prevent teams from working cohesively.
    • Your project management software might be influencing your management decisions in counterproductive ways. Software with no cloud support, for example, can drive management to plan projects in isolation, leading to goals and subtasks that don’t match up well with reality.
    • Often, the best plans are built around an understanding of how your workforce actually operates, rather than around an idealized version of the way that it should operate. Do you have processes in place that help you understand how your workforce operates? If so, could they use some fine-tuning?
    • Are rules and guidelines helping or hindering productivity? Business processes that go out of their way to avoid a loss can often end up creating a much larger drain on assets than the losses they are trying to prevent. Clearly, anarchy in the workplace leads to distraction and laziness, but bureaucracy itself can also become a distraction, and an excuse to pass responsibility further up or down the hierarchy.

Remember, don’t conflate incentives and blame. If you care about fixing problems and building an effective business, processes are always responsible.

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