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A familiar refrain is that the employees only bring problems, not solutions. Something goes wrong, and the employee wants to sound the alarm and tell everyone that there is a problem. But they don’t bring solutions to them. Many times, this comes with a lot of finger-pointing and blaming. People scramble to find a scapegoat and cover their own actions. They work to defend what they did and make sure others know that they are innocent. All this energy that is spent with these types of problems is a waste. It doesn’t help to solve the problem. It only identifies it and then magnifies it.
Years ago, I was involved in a business that had this challenge. We wanted our people to skip the blame game and move towards possible solutions. If they could bring us some thought-out options to fix the problem, we would move past obstacles more quickly. We ultimately were able to create an approach that solved this problem. We used the following steps to create accountability with a focus towards resolving the issue, not blaming others:
Step 1: Realize that it is a culture problem
The first step is to know that it is a larger problem than you might realize. It isn’t just a few bad apples. More than likely, it is a reflection of the culture created from leadership. If leadership is always concerned about harping on every small issue and always looking to nail those who make mistakes to the wall, that mindset will flow to staff.
Instead of being willing to take a risk by proposing a solution, they would rather do everything possible to avoid becoming the target. They don’t want to suggest a way to fix the problem because if it doesn’t work, the blame will point to them, even if they didn’t cause the problem.
Step 2: Reframe problems
When a problem comes up, what do you do? Are you concerned with finding out who committed the infraction so you can make an example of them?
If this is your approach, your staff will instantly turn into defensive lawyers whenever a problem surfaces. They will know that they better have their story straight and find a way to shirk responsibility for the mistake.
Instead, start to reframe the problem to be mostly about the solution. Work to find out how you can make it right. That means for the short-term issue but also for future issues. How can you put something in place, so the problem doesn’t happen again?
We came across a great example. Our logistics manager made a mistake when printing out a log for our driver. Not all the stops printed, and they didn’t catch it in time. Instead of looking to punish the individual who made the mistake, we found a way to modify the form so the mistake couldn’t happen again.
We added a designated end section, and the form wouldn’t be usable without that final information. This made it impossible to make the mistake again. The form wouldn’t let someone make that mistake, because they couldn’t do the next step without it.
It was a simple fix that took 10 minutes to implement. In the next three years using the new form, we never had someone make that mistake again. Because we reframed the problem to be on how to make sure it doesn’t happen again, we found a systematic solution that allowed us to spend time on more important topics than punishing this employee.
When you switch to finding solutions, one obstacle you will face is that there usually isn’t a perfect option to solve the problem. Instead, you will have to choose between a bunch of bad options.
Don’t let this get in the way of moving forward. Sure, the perfect solution would be if the mistake was never made. But it was made. So, move on to picking the best option.
Step 3: Be willing to coach up employees who make mistakes
Going along with reframing the problem to be on the solution, don’t go out of your way to make examples of those who goofed up. Making a public show might seem like a deterrent to others, but it won’t help create the right culture of accountability that you desire.
Instead, coach up employees who don’t get it right. Work with them individually in private, and make sure they understand what they did wrong and what they should have done. If they can’t turn it around, you can add progressive discipline, a personal improvement plan or other steps. But by starting with a coaching approach, you will find many employees respond better and improve the areas of concern.
Coaching up employees is a better approach than over-punishing or making an example of them. Creating a culture of fear isn’t the way to lead. It will counter all of your efforts to create a staff of proactive leaders.
Step 4: Make the expectation a process
Once these foundational elements are in place, the next step is to document the process you want employees to follow. We did this with a formal procedure in our SOP manual that outlined the expectation when a problem was discovered.
When employees noticed an issue, they first had to triage. Is this an emergency? Not everything is an emergency, but you want employees to react quickly when there is a true emergency.
Outside of an emergency, they are instructed to investigate the problem. We gave them certain questions to make sure they understand the general scope of the problem. This helps prevent them from telling us there is a major problem but not having any idea what the problem entails.
They would have to understand the impact of the issue, the areas that are affected and if there are immediate aspects that need to be addressed. They can then rate the urgency, importance and how systematic it is.
Next, they develop options to solve the problem. We wanted at least two or three options that they evaluate with pros and cons of each. They choose the option they feel is best and then bring all the information to management. They could send an email with the information if the ratings showed low severity. Otherwise, they had to call someone or come to their office to review.
Initially, many of our managers resisted this procedure. They thought it would be cumbersome and get in the way of solving problems. But it did the opposite. Instead of a problem getting reported and several people wasting time investigating, they did much of the research solo. Instead of talking about the problem at length, they moved on to looking for options to solve it. It completely streamlined the problem-solving process.
Often, they would present their findings, options and their recommendation, and we would confirm they were on the right track and begin implementing the solution. They were happy, because they didn’t go through 20 questions with us, and we were happy, because we could make quick decisions. If we did have follow-up questions, they already knew the answer.
Over time, our trust in our people grew. They started to follow this procedure by habit, rather than pulling out the documentation. They intuitively knew what to do when an issue was discovered and began the problem-solving process.
Step 5: Reward those who come up with solutions
The last step is to reward those who buy into this approach. Those who presented options for solutions became the trusted employees who were rewarded. Those who refused to come up with solutions weren’t rewarded for simply finding a problem.
Changing the culture of an organization is difficult. If you want an effective and efficient process for solving problems, don’t leave it up to chance. Design the problem-solving systems on your teams to get the most out of the people working with you.
Focusing on the solution will help you move away from a series of problems turning to blame and frustration. You will develop a culture of accountability. Employees will be willing to admit fault, knowing the focus will shift to finding a solution.
As they admit to fault, they create opportunities to learn. When they spend all their energy defending their actions, they will refuse to change, because they won’t think it is necessary. They will work to look perfect and miss out on any chance to get better.
Following these steps is the start to creating the systems that will make it easy to manage your team. It will give you confidence that they can handle obstacles and challenges and move quickly and efficiently from problem to solution.