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Posted on: Tuesday, December 16, 2008 by Rajiv Popat

Leadership, Constructive Criticism And Not Playing The Blame Game.

During his very early days as a manager for a brief period of time, Pops wrote fairly heated emails to people in his team when they indulged in the acts of incompetence.  Very soon, he realized that those heated emails were creating one consistent output: More Incompetence. That added incompetence of course resulted in more heated emails being sent by Pops. This thing was almost like the infinite loop of failure.


As I watched the productivity of my team go down I felt awfully sorry and completely responsible for that productivity drop. I had always loved computers and working in a team but for a brief period of time I had violated the fundamental rule of good teamwork and leadership. Instead of criticizing myself first, I had criticized others and had almost taken the first step towards hiding behind the excuse of their incompetency. As an effect, I had made the workplace a little less fun for others; and that in any developer’s or manager’s work-life, is the equivalent of a criminal offence.

One of my first organization happened to be a place where when a project failed, we had an open meeting involving all team members. This was an occasion where everyone indulged in CYA exercise, followed by a blatantly open finger pointing exercise and someone would be fired. Having seen a culture like that when I jumped over to a different organization, I had resolved to myself that I would appreciate human beings and grab every opportunity to create a healthier environment everywhere I went and whenever I could.

For a brief period of a couple of months I forgot that resolve and committed the stupid mistake of ruthless criticism. Then almost with a sudden flash of light, I remembered how it felt to be on the receiving side of this criticism. My strange experiences from those firing meetings and my past organization to an extent rescued me from falling in the pit of prickdom right in time.

Since then I’ve seen almost magical changes and examples of incompetence change to core competency more than once. I’ve seen individuals on the verge of being fired by managers turn to one of the most critical team members by a mere change of role, by simple acts of encouragement or a little bit of honest support.

For me I learnt this lesson the hard way though; it took difficult experiences in my past organization and some soul searching followed by sudden realization to finally help me understand. I was lucky to have been through this learning experience in a very short span of time.

Having said that, however, this post, doesn’t end with Pops living happily ever after. After all, dear reader, as much as you might like this blog, I do realize perfectly well that you don’t care about me or my past. This post, of course has more to it than just a little story from my lousy past.

Years later, even today, I see countless managers with years of experience behind them, conveniently indulge in act of shattering criticism, sending flame mails, hiding behind the excuse of their team’s incompetence, putting in no genuine effort of fixing the core problem and spending no or very little effort to genuinely help their team.

In fact, it almost seems like a fashion statement to announce glamorously, that putting in effort to help and mentor incompetence, even if there is a possibility of being able to fix things easily, by the use of simple motivation, guidance or change of role, is not worth a good manager’s time.

John Maeda in his post about being the good boss hits the nail right on it’s head. He explains:

When a team succeeds at achieving a lofty goal, the good boss credits her team members as being the reasons for success instead of herself. This "boss behavior" enables the team to trust their boss as one who enables their own careers over the boss' own career.

When a team fails at achieving a lofty goal, the good boss owns the failure as her own and doesn't blame the team. This boss behavior enables the team members to take creative risks with their work, and not feel they will be penalized by their boss when/if they fail.

Both boss behaviors require the core attributes of the boss as: 1) being self-assured but not an *sshole about it, 2) keeping the larger goals in mind with priority over the issues that are just local to herself, and 3) facing each day with acceptance of the challenging responsibilities that comes with being the boss.

It’s a well laid out post, which comes straight to the point; but just in case you weren’t reading between the lines, let’s simplify this for you:

If you lead a team and the team fails, it’s ‘your’ fault. You’re supposed to accept that, and take all the blame for the failure on yourself. Simple.

Most managers in our business find simplicity at that level scary. Almost all of them find it difficult to digest the idea that when you’re leading, CYA is not an option. This is precisely why failure postmortems and root-cause-analysis for failed projects are so common in our industry. Scott Berkun describes how most managers suck at the basics:

In management / design / business circles I know for certain of one reason. Flat out hubris. For an executive to say: “This project sucks because I have failed to organize this team effectively”requires a huge amount of humility. Much more humility than is required to say something like “Our innovation infrastructure needs to be redistributed to support the new rate of change”. Or some other bullshit that sounds complex, makes him seem smart, and entirely distracts people away from what might solve the problem: identifying the problem in the simplest terms possible.

In the world of software development most managers are taught the blame game, right when they are young and budding management students, business analysts or programmers taking their first fumbling steps at managing a team. For most managers, blaming the process, an individual’s incompetence or the whole team’s incompetence is an easy excuse for all failures; including theirs. I’ve hardly ever seen managers personally attached to team members, spending genuine effort in trying to help them find their core competencies and coming forward to blatantly own up failures and take responsibility when things don’t work out.

I’ve hardly ever seen managers lending constructive one on one direct verbal criticism followed by genuine help. I’m not talking about a generalized you-need-to-get-better-at-coding-email followed by be-careful-next-time-email followed by I-am-going-home-but-check-in-the-code-and-email-me-the-status-as-soon-as-possible kind of criticism here.

I’m talking about the blatant and precise your-use-of-object-orientation-in-the-administration-module-sucks said with empathy, followed by a joke, followed by lets-go-out-for-a-cup-of-coffee, followed by lets-stay-late-and-refractor-together kind of constructive criticism. Or for that matter, let’s-meet-during-the-weekend-and-fix-this kind of constructive criticism; and that dear reader, irrespective of what they tell you, is not a waste of your time; it’s what you were hired to do; especially If you were hired to lead a team. If you weren’t specifically hired to do that, I suggest that you do it anyways.

If you work with a team, don’t criticize ruthlessly; if you lead a team don’t play the blame game; and remember, it doesn’t matter what they teach you in management schools or tell you at your workplace, if your project isn’t cruising along successfully, it’s always your fault.

If you must criticize, do so constructively, followed by empathy, followed by genuine help. I can’t teach you how to do that. What I can do, however, dear reader, is end this post abruptly and rather dramatically, leaving you with words of wisdom worth pondering on, from one of my all time favorite movies. Here’s Wishing you, good leadership, healthy teams and a good life.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008 5:57:54 AM UTC
With regard to "it's always your fault", this reminded me of something I blogged about 4 years ago in reaction to an incident where I had a manager who was really emphatic about it being his fault and not the team's to the extent that it was distracting from us figuring out what to do.

My thought is that believing that fault is at all relevant is the underlying problem. When a scientist runs an experiment to verify a hypothesis and something unexpected occurs, do we even think about fault? Understand what happened, adjust, and move on. I will guarantee that there will be problems and therefore blame and fault are entirely irrelevant.

I think the important distinction is whether the "good boss" actually believes what s/he is saying. Do you believe that it's their fault but you say differently? That mindset and behaviour doesn't work in the long run.
Tuesday, December 30, 2008 10:37:07 AM UTC
Printing is broken in Firefox (the line end is cropped).

Adjusting the CSS link by selecting media="screen" instead of media="all" would be a quick & dirty fix.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008 1:22:54 PM UTC

From your post > “I don't care who's fault it is. I only care what the next step is.”

Point taken. I agree. One hundred percent. As far as your thought process as a manager / team member is concerned that should be the line of thought. No disagreements there.

I’ve seen small mistakes and then I’ve seen some colossal ones.

The real question is when mistakes are colossal and financial losses are involved few clients / organizations have the maturity to move on without finding out who messed things up and a few don’t.

If you happen to work with clients / organization that have a level of maturity to move on without finding whose fault it was, perfect.

This post was more about confronting the war-front when you aren’t that lucky and your client / manager / boss / team believes that doing a ‘root cause analysis’ of ‘who-went-wrong’ rather than ‘what-went-wrong’ will help.

I’ve seen a few of these in one of the first organization I worked with and believe me in the real world, these ‘root cause analysis sessions’ where individual names are discussed continue to happen in many organizations around the world.

When that happens it takes a strong spine and conviction ( to educate clients / organizations and if educating doesn’t work developing a thicker skin ( and accepting the fault as your fault rather than randomly blaming your team’s incompetence.

The post was mostly focused on avoiding the blame game during that point of time and inspiring budding managers to refrain from getting into a finger-pointing or a CYA exercise. Leading teams in difficult situations is hard. It means you need to take all blame and distribute all credit.

The thought that I was trying to get across with this post was very similar to your post – all I was trying to do here was inspire young and budding managers to come out and say - “If you must find out whose fault it is, I’m leading the team and It’s obviously my fault. Now let’s figure out how to fix it.” – not sure if that message / tone came out articulately in my post or not, but that is exactly what I was trying to get through. I think we’re in agreement here.

Personally I always blame all failures on Pops ( but if I can blame it all on Chet, why not! :)

On a second thought, I’ll think I’ll continue to blame Pops ( for everything that goes wrong in my projects and continue to push teams / clients / organizations to focus on fixing the problems. :)

I was not trying to hint that when things go wrong someone should be blamed for it – which is why the post was titled - 'Leadership, Constructive Criticism And Not Playing The Blame Game'. Thanks for the insightful comment, it helps clarify my stand, stress the point and convey what I had initially tried to convey with the post.
Tuesday, December 30, 2008 9:47:12 PM UTC
Steve, I might take a little time to get that fixed. I’ll post a comment here as soon as it’s fixed. Thanks so much for pointing that out.
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