Category Archives: Workplace Systems

Having Employee Performance Problems? Maybe It’s the System!

I regularly check out the website  They have a wide variety of interesting videos and news articles that they seem to cull from all over.  Recently I watched this video, about a former female Marine who was sexually harassed and raped while in the Corps, and then, when she complained, she was retaliated against.  Check it out:


In this clip, Ariana Klay and her husband, Ben, clearly describe the systems problem that made possible the harassment, rape and retaliation she suffered.  Yes, individuals (including her fellow Marines and their commanding officer) broke laws and otherwise behaved in appalling ways.   Yet these two former Marines maintain that it was probably an unreasonable expectation to think that her commanding officer would impartially investigate or judge the accusations and complaints she made against her colleagues.  According to their comments,

  • The military system is set up to train commanders to lead troops in war (right – it’s the military).  It is not set up so that commanders can impartially mete out justice to their own troops.
  • The system rewards unit cohesiveness at all costs (which is likely destroyed when one member accuses another of harassment – or rape).
  • It expects commanders to act in a judicial capacity when they have little or no training to do so.
  • It rewards high unit performance at the cost of all else.
  • Finally, the military pays lip service to fighting harassment (creating anti-harassment policies, providing anti-harassment training, displaying anti-harassment posters, etc.) while maintaining a system that protects the harasser (or rapist) and vilifies victims.

So, what does all this have to do with our non-military workplaces?  Think about this the next time you see managers, supervisors (or, for that matter, employees) who fail to live up to your expectations.  Ask yourself:

Does our management and systems structure promote the best work from everyone, or do we make it impossible for people to do their best work?  For example,

  • Do we tell leads and supervisors (and even managers) they’re in charge without giving them the authority to do what needs to be done?
  • Do we tell employees to work collaboratively while rewarding individual performance?
  • As we reduce our workforces, do we ask already full-time employees to take on more and more without dropping or changing anything they were previously doing?

Do we ask people to do things for which they have no training?  For example,

  • Do we promote the best technical people, then ask lead and supervisory employees to do their new jobs without giving them any training in supervisory skills?
  • In reducing our workforce, have we asked people to take on tasks they don’t know how to do without training them in those tasks?

Are we clear about our expectations?  For example,

  • Do we say one thing (like putting up anti-harassment posters) while doing another (like joking with our employees or colleagues in ways that are funny at someone else’s expense?)
  • Is there a direct link between what we say we want and what we reward with pay or promotion?

So, before blaming individuals for failing to do their jobs properly, look at the systems you have in place.  W. Edwards Deming ( said it way back in the 1990s, and it’s just as true today:

Most troubles and most possibilities for improvement add up to proportions something like this:

* 94% belong to the system (the responsibility of management)
* 6% are attributable to special causes [aka individual employee performance issues].

Do you have some insights into systems issues?  We’d love to hear from you!  ~Daphne Schneider