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The Blame Game: Why Are We So Quick to Fire?

Published: November 17, 2014
CEO Tony DiBenedetto co-founded Tribridge and leads our strategic direction, growth and development. Read More

Article originally published on Nov 17, 2014

Have you noticed that when a high-profile or public figure makes a mistake the first reaction we have is to call for them to be fired or demand a resignation? Let me first clarify that when I say "we," I mean the collective voice that includes the media, interactions on social media platforms and personal exchanges at dinner parties and around the water cooler.

It's one thing to fire someone because of an egregious or highly immoral offense--there are certainly plenty of examples in which job termination was well justified--but our society seems to have a lynch mob mentality rather than a desire to help someone improve or develop as a person. I find this knee-jerk attitude troubling, because it's creeping into the workplace and squashing the spirit of innovation.

A Primetime Example: NFL Commissioner Goodell

There have been several examples of highly publicized firings and calls for resignations this year in particular, from high-ranking government officials and CEOs to professional coaches. And thanks to social media, even ordinary people caught in unfortunate workplace situations have been thrust into the spotlight and their stories aired for public judge and jury.

Maybe it's human nature, but we seem to have a need to symbolize a wrongdoing by holding up a single person to blame. One person has to be held accountable with a price to pay: their job and worse, their dignity. Even if their employment wasn't terminated, we run them through the ringer with such force that their reputation is permanently tainted. All over a mistake. Perhaps nothing malicious or even illegal, but an error in judgment or an action that led to an undesirable outcome.

Firing someone is often not only unavoidable but necessary, especially for a continuous lack of performance or offenses that intentionally harm a person or the organization. It might not be as exciting or popular--especially when you're under pressure to take swift action--but why don't we talk about helping someone make the necessary changes to become a better employee or leader? We seldom hear all the facts behind a mistake once it's made public, and that mistake could likely be a result of many decisions made along the way.

One of the biggest HR-turned-PR scandals this year was NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's mismanagement of the Ray Rice domestic violence investigation. I think we can all agree that something as awful as what happened on that video deserved a much more swift and serious punishment than what he initially handed to Rice. But what we don't know is what role his bosses--the owners of the NFL teams--had in determining the actions taken. Rice was the person who committed the atrocious offense, but we as a society wanted Goodell to be fired along with him. Do you wipe away a lifetime of accomplishments and tear him down based on a case of poor judgment or a bad decision, or do we help him and the NFL learn from the mistake and become better leaders?

How We are Killing Innovation

Let's put the Goodell example in the context of business. I run a company with 600 team members. If I reacted the way the public and the media does when someone makes a mistake, I would be forced to fire all 600 people and especially myself, many times over. There seems to be no appetite for personal development, for forgiveness or for making things right.

Startups and medium-sized businesses are having a hard time finding good talent to fill open positions. But many of those companies are struggling to build loyalty because they have high turnover. If employees are afraid to try something new or take risks for fear of making a mistake and getting fired, creativity and performance are inevitably stifled. And that type of workplace prevents growth.

Laci Loew, principal analyst and consultant with Brandon Hall Group, lists creating an innovative culture as one of the five key challenges in integrated talent management today. She references a Boston Consulting Group survey, in which "72% of senior executives in the survey named innovation as one of their top three priorities needed for business prosperity, yet almost half said they were dissatisfied with the returns on their investments in that area. They described their cultures as stagnant."

If we want our people to be innovative, we have to create an environment of no fear, where it's okay to take risks and make mistakes.

Four Ways to Retain Your Best People

Unlike professional sports where you either win or get fired, in business there is room for lots of players and outcomes. Here are four tips for retaining your best people and building a winning culture of no-fear innovation:

  1. Encourage your team to fast-fail. Give them the space and freedom to launch a new product or service. If the desired outcomes don't measure up to your goals, quickly pull the plug and move on. Don't dwell on the failure or place blame, but celebrate the concept of innovation as a team.
  2. Have an open dialogue when people aren't performing. Formal one-on-ones are essential, but don't underestimate the power of informal help before bad habits become bigger problems. A 2014 talent management report by Bersin by Deloitte reminds us that, "Until we create an organization that operates on candor, feedback, accountability and strong personal relationships, no amount of annual performance ratings will help."
  3. Get more comfortable with moving people on the bus. Jim Collins' Good to Great analogy of putting the right people in the right seats on the bus is a timeless piece of wisdom. Underperforming team members are often in the wrong role. If someone is a good culture fit, take the time to find where the person can excel within the organization.
  4. Provide the necessary skills training. Feedback is great, but no company is too small to build a formal learning and development program. According to Bersin, "Year after year, we find companies outperform their competitors because they have deeper skills, a stronger learning culture and a deep investment in leadership...By the way, people are usually more engaged and loyal at these companies, because these companies invest in them."

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