The biggest mistake you can make about employees

I’ve done a fair amount of turnaround work. It’s not my favorite work, but it is interesting and challenging.

Now, one thing that’s very easy to do when you go into a bad area is to blame the people. I hear about “bad” employees constantly. And yes, there is often astonishing incompetence that has to get fixed fast. In fact, usually the most important and critical change in a crisis situation is in rapidly evaluating and replacing certain members of management.

But when we look at a broader scene, there’s one observation I wanted to share with you:

  • Good people in a bad system become “bad” people.
  • Bad people in a good system become plainly obvious as bad people.

It seems like such an self-evident statement, but I have routinely worked with executives who categorize, without a lot of understanding, a group of employees as low-quality. Now, a good manager has a fine-tuned sense of what a good employee is and those opinions are useful. But all too often, I’ve seen managers immediately make assessments on employees, based purely on their own opinion.

So when I enter a turnaround scene, one of the first things I look at is the system (or scene, whatever you want to call it), and then look at the people.

I have worked in areas where the organization structure and management was toxic. And, of course, the employees similar looked “toxic”. They get painted with the broad brush. But here’s a truth: the majority of employees are all too happy to work well. What I have found is that only a minority are actually bad/lazy/stupid/incompetent/evil/etc.

I recall at one company we had terrible problems with product releases. The “reason why” that I started hearing were general statements such as “the developers are unwilling to work”, “they are lazy”, and so on. I didn’t buy it. A simple and radical change in the development organization system suddenly highlighted the very, very small minority who were actually bad actors. And the good developers were miraculously wildly productive. They were all good people stuck in a bad system. When you implement a good system, the bad actors become clearly obvious.

If you consider that a majority of your employees are idiots, well, careful — don’t throw stones in a very fragile glass house.

Let’s remember, however, that even good employees in a good system need to be motivated, given clear direction and kept productive. That is the art and science of building great teams and strong organizational structures.

So, I’m not advocating being a pollyanna. But the broader picture is worth remembering: Good system, good people. Bad system, bad people.

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