The ‘whose fault is it?’ method for dealing with workplace issues has rarely been successful. This is because blame does not bring about actions or solutions, just defensiveness or withdrawal. When we avoid making blame the focus of our problem solving endeavors, we can accept personal responsibility for fixing things. But there are circumstances where this approach still fails, even when we are seemingly bending over backwards to avoid blame. Sometimes it seems like it really is their fault!
Recently, I have been working with a VP at a creative services firm, helping him improve his relationship with a large and important client. It seemed that although they had been working with this client for several years (with great success), the client had begun to express dissatisfaction - the client felt that the firm no longer understood them. The VP’s initial reaction was that the client is being stubborn, silly, difficult, etc. We decided that he should not blame the client but should instead change his approach, which he did.
He tried at least three novel approaches to try and change the client’s behavior, all by changing his own behavior. First, he took the role of student asking the client to teach him more about them. Then, he took the teacher approach, helping the client to better articulate their own needs. And finally he took the humble and quiet approach, keeping his head down and reiterating what the client is telling him, no matter what is being said. None of these approaches have helped, leaving my client with a big question (or two) - could it be that I simply cannot solve this through my own actions? Is it possible that this problem could really be their fault?
Again, I feel very strongly that blame is nothing less than poison in organizational life, especially when trying to find solutions. This is largely because asking ourselves ‘whose fault is it?’ does not answer the real question, ‘how can we fix this?’ When I reflect on client stories of unsolvable conflict, workplace misery, high turnover or bad morale, in most cases it can be traced back to a culture of blame. For organizations, this kind of culture creates an endless series of witch-hunts, looking to discover who ‘dropped the ball’. But even if we identify the ball-dropper, we discover that this revelation doesn’t really solve anything. For individuals, the blame game creates animosity and kills assertiveness because blaming others takes the onus off of oneself to do anything.
So if the problem really is the client’s fault - because they are difficult or what have you - what to do? As was the case with my creative VP client, this situation calls for several things. First off, my client went to his boss to explain the problem only after trying his novel approaches first. This way, making the case that the client is difficult would be way easier because he had already tried some novel solutions. Secondly, his boss has to give his employee the benefit of the doubt. At first, the boss thought he could use some help improving this client relationship and so he hired me to help him (certainly not a bad idea). But now, it is clear that the VP has used this help happily and willfully and his boss may need to acknowledge that the client could be the problem. Thirdly, this is a situation where an organization needs to make some choices about who they are - do we ‘put up with’ this difficult client and try to hold on to their business at almost any cost? Or, do we decide that the relationship is not working and end it before they do?
I find that choices of this kind are crucial in the life of any organization, but especially important in client focussed, professional services environments. The problem may in fact be their fault, but how we as individuals or organizations react is our responsibility.