Dear Manager: When An Employee Fails It's Your Fault
July 7, 2014

Dear Manager: When An Employee Fails It's Your Fault

by Brian de Haaff

No matter how flat tech organizations are today they still have structure and with structure comes power — and often the abuse of it. I have wanted to take this topic on for some time, because I still see too many managers and ultimately the companies that they work for blame employees for lousy performance and missed goals. But I do not think it is their fault. In nearly every company I have ever come into contact with, it is managerial dysfunction that has led the employees and the organization astray.

I have worked in Silicon Valley for the past 15+ years and have had a few great managers who I consider mentors. These are folks who I have stayed in contact with for the long haul. They have had a huge impact on my career and helped me be the CEO of three companies including Aha!

But, unfortunately if you have worked anywhere long enough you have come into contact with crazy folk in positions beyond them. Let me share a few firsthand experiences of managers gone totally wrong.

The chaser I was in a meeting when the CEO started chasing a sales guy around a conference room table. He was angry that it was taking him longer to close a deal than he promised. I slowly stood up as they ran by and started looking for a new job.

The pilot I was an early employee at a company where the first CEO was replaced with someone more “seasoned.” The new CEO came into the company and then whacked most of the management team that was performing reasonably well. Once that was done he spent the majority of his time getting his pilot’s license, learning to fly, and talking about building a “lifestyle company.”

The hit man I witnessed an employee resign at one company only to have his manager threaten, “It’s a small valley and I figure you will come to regret this.” When the employee calmly asked what he meant, the manager just nodded and gave a wink.

The bus driver I worked for a manager who inevitably found someone to blame for every failure. Worse, when things were going slightly sideways on a project he looked cross-functionally for a scapegoat rather than working collaboratively to solve the problem. Someone always ended getting rolled over every quarter during business reviews.

Now, these are fairly extreme cases but they all have something in common. In each situation, the manager was sick yet blamed the staff for his ills, the company culture, or the mess he was creating.

I have learned a simple lesson — it is the manager’s responsibility to look hard at himself first and ask the following critical questions when something bad happens:
  • Have I caused this problem?

  • Have I done everything I can to make my employees and the company successful?

  • What could I do differently moving forward?

  • How can I lead and help solve this issue?

I strongly believe that nearly all employees want to master their job and contribute positively to the company. [And for the few who do not — it was a hiring mistake which still falls on the manager]. If you agree with the idea that employees want to do their best, you will start thinking about leadership and the workplace differently. In addition, you must then assume that if employees really want to do well but are not able to, it is not their fault.

So, where do managers go so wrong? It is actually fairly simple. I think there are five main areas that all managers must focus on and go back to when there are problems. The central area is Integrity and everything starts with treating people with dignity and respect. If that is broken, forget about the rest. But assuming it is a humane environment to work in, keep reading. Typically, when employees are struggling there is an issue in one of these areas.

Goals Objectives should be clear and acknowledged. They should be aggressive but obtainable. High-performance organizations write down and discuss goals and each person understands their role in achieving them. There is no ambiguity.

Communication People need to have the most up-to-date information to do their jobs and do them well. In too many organizations, managers hoard information and only share it at the very last minute.

Resources Most jobs today require some form of collaboration or access to additional resources. There are all types of resources, from money to materials to talent. Employees need the right tools to be their best.

Assistance This is the area where breakdowns most often occur because the manager is “too busy” or “too distracted” to provide support. A manager’s job should be to lead and a major component of leadership is helping employees grow. No one wants to stretch for a goal without the ongoing support of colleagues and a manager.

If you are a manager and fail to provide the right goals, information, resources, or assistance — don’t complain when employees fail. It’s clearly your fault.

Managers need to lead and companies have the responsibility to create a work environment that helps employees succeed. Improve any one of the areas discussed above and you will likely remove barriers that are impacting real people trying to do meaningful work.

What types of crazy managers have you worked for or with?

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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