When Employees Fail: Management Is Often to Blame

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Bruce L. Katcher, Ph.D.

My sister recently lost another job. For the past year she had managed the payroll at a small property management company. Even before she was hired, her soon-to-be boss warned her that three people had failed at the job within the last 18 months. She had never failed on a job and had always received outstanding performance ratings. She needed the work and so, with some trepidation, took the job.

My sister has had a great deal of experience managing the payroll for several companies. Once on the job she immediately realized that this company was making it extremely difficult for her to succeed. They would not allow her to use the proper payroll software, a standard practice in most companies. Instead, the majority of her job involved time-intensive manual entry of payroll data on to spreadsheets from poorly kept hand-written records collected from each employee. Most of the records arrived at her desk only a few hours before the payroll was due.

One day, after more than 11 months of error-free work, a small typo out of her many thousands of hand entries was found in one of the spreadsheets. Incredibly, she was ordered to take two days off with no pay. The owner told her, “I expect 100% accuracy 100% of the time.” Two weeks later another small typo was detected. Both errors were easily correctable and no one was paid the wrong amount. But she was promptly let go.

The reason she failed: poor management.

My sister was given an impossible job because the company stubbornly refused to change the way it operated. Instead, the company is destined to continue in their futile search for a person who will never make a mistake.

The Problem
Employees frequently fail because they are not provided the proper tools, operating procedures, or support they need from management. For example:
- Sales employees often fail because they are given poor sales leads.
- Production employees often fail because they do not have the proper tools.
- Manufacturing employees often fail because they are given shoddy raw materials.
- Other employees often fail because the procedures they are told to use are outdated.

As Frederick Taylor wrote in his seminal 1911 work The Principles of Scientific Management: “In the past, the man has been first; in the future, the system must be first.” He further asserts, “The remedy for inefficiency lies in systematic management, rather than in searching for some unusual or extraordinary man.”

What to Do
My advice is essentially the opposite of Jim Collin’s suggestion in his book Good to Great of “getting the right people on the bus.” I believe it is equally critical to make certain that the bus is operating correctly before anyone gets on.

When people fail at a job, senior management should view it as their own failure. They may have hired the wrong person for the job, but most often the problem is that the job needs to be changed so that the probability of success is higher. For example:

- If a receptionist at a busy office building cannot complete typing assignments because answering the phone and greeting visitors occupies 90% of his or her time, the job should probably be changed.

- If a programmer can never complete projects by the scheduled deadline, perhaps the deadlines are not being set properly or perhaps he or she does not have the necessary resources or support.

- If production employees too often produce products that do not meet quality control standards, perhaps the manufacturing procedures need to be changed.

- If first-line supervisors do not properly manage their functions, perhaps it is because they are not given the decision-making authority they need to succeed.

To prevent employees from failing:
Ask yourself – Is this job really do-able? For a variety of reasons, success at some jobs is virtually impossible. Many senior managers, however, have never been in the trenches and never had to try to perform the job. If people are failing, I suggest that managers get out there and try to perform it themselves.

- Benchmark and share best practices. If one of your locations or departments consistently produces higher quality work than others, find out why. Determine what they are doing well and then use those techniques in your other locations.

- Periodically re-engineer the work. Re-engineering is the analysis and design of workflows and processes within an organization. Organizations change over time to accommodate changes in their business and the needs of customers. Consequently, jobs and the flow of the work need to change as well. But most organizations do not regularly examine jobs to make certain that the procedures, staffing levels, and equipment are still appropriate.

- Foster open communications with employees about the work. Make it safe for employees to let you know if you are setting them up to fail. An interesting article concerning this recommendation was written by my colleague David Lee and can be found at www.humannatureatwork.com/.

When employees fail, it is often management’s fault. Take their failure as your personal failure, try the job yourself to see if it is do-able, use the successful practices of other locations or departments, assess whether the work needs to be re-engineered, and foster open communications with employees about the work. The payoff will be a workplace that sets its people up for success, not failure.

About the Author(s)

Bruce L. Katcher, Ph.D. is an industrial/organizational psychologist and founder and president of Discovery Surveys, Inc. (http://www.discoverysurveys.com/) and the Center for Independent Consulting (www.centerforindependentconsulting.com). He is the author of 30 Reasons Employees Hate their Managers (AMACOM) and, most recently, An Insider's Guide to Building a Successful Consulting Practice (AMACOM, 2010).