South Africans have a blind spot when it comes to understanding the difference between fault and responsibility. “It’s not my fault that my car’s brakes failed,” we say, and we think that’s the end of the story. If it’s not my fault, somehow I don’t have to take responsibility.
I have found this to be one of the greatest barriers to understanding and dealing with workplace problems. Not because this type of justification happens, but because managers at all levels fail to take it into account. It is powerful and pervasive, but we ignore it completely.
We assume everyone knows the rules and that employees can see as plainly as we can what they have done wrong or why their poor performance, their late coming or their ill health is a problem. But most employees are genuinely ignorant about what they have done wrong or why something is a problem.
Why is the employee so blind to something so obvious to the manager? Because of the power of justification. Think of how we justify our own behaviour—say, when we are driving. Others who speed, or skip a traffic light or speak on their cell phones are just plain reckless and irresponsible. But when you and I do any of those things there is always a very good reason for it. That’s justification.
Employees may know their behaviour was not the best, but there is, in their minds, a very good reason for it. If you ignore that reasoning you might win arguments but employees will not take responsibility for the future. They just won’t get it.
An employee will say, “It’s not my fault that I was sick.” “It’s not my fault that I was late for work.” No doubt it wasn’t, but in the workplace, fault is not the main issue. Merely laying blame gets us nowhere. The question is, will the employee take responsibility for what happens next?
Start by assuming that the employee had a very good reason for the poor performance or behaviour. Start with how the employee sees it and work from there. You might say, “But it’s obvious. That’s the policy; that’s the performance standard. Anyone can see how the employee failed.”
That may be true, but you have to move beyond failure to responsibility. Paul Falcone of Time Warner Cable said, “Always focus on shifting responsibility for improvement away from the company to the employee where it rightfully belongs.”
A proper investigation, therefore, is the place to start. You have observed something or something is reported to you. The temptation is to assume you know what the problem is and how to solve it. After all, you’ve dealt with these situations before, haven’t you. But this isn’t about you solving a problem; it’s about helping an employee take responsibility. An investigation will reveal the details of what happened and the reasons behind it: what the employee was thinking and what he or she failed to understand.
From understanding you can move to why the behaviour or performance is a problem. Once again employees may recognise their failures but simply don’t know what the fuss is about. The standard South African response to a traffic fine is, “Why don’t the police go after the real criminals?” In the workplace it’s, “Sure I’ve done wrong, but it’s no big deal. What’s the fuss?”
If employees understand why their behaviour or performance is a problem, and why it has to be resolved, you can come to agreement on the next step. You might offer help or training, but the responsibility is theirs. How will they change their behaviour, or what will they do and when, to turn their performance around?
Help your employees understand the difference between fault and responsibility, and keep focus on the latter.