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I recently had a project which suffered a needless delay of a month because all three people involved thought it was someone else's turn to do something. My reaction was "Sigh, now finish the project". Their reaction was "See this chain of emails? I said here that I'm going to do this, how could you not understand?" I couldn't care less whose fault it is, but it's apparently their priority to make it clear that someone else is to blame for the wasted time.

Incidents like the following have also happened:

Me: For this project, these are the circumstances. You have a lot more experience at this than me, so you decide if we should do X or Y.

Them: ...

Them: I only do what people in your pay grade tell me to do!

In other words, although given the opportunity to make a decision (it was a pretty minor one too, they can bungle it completely and nothing terrible will happen), but they don't want to do it. Meanwhile, if I choose something that goes badly, they are completely blameless.

I'm wondering if this is an issue at the company culture level, or at the personal level. If the former, what can be done about it? If the latter, can it be solved at the HR level? How can one identify who's likely to do this during the interview?

Edit: details of the first situation if it matters: Alice, Bob and Charlie are the three people involved. Alice is supposed to coordinate, Bob and Charlie are supposed to do X and Y respectively. Charlie is waiting for Bob to let him know it's time to do Y. Bob does X. He suggests to Alice that they do X". Alice says it's a good idea, and she will do it. Two weeks later, Bob sends a reminder, and Alice says she's waiting for Charlie. Another two weeks later, Charlie sends a reminder asking why he hasn't heard anything. Alice and Bob quickly figure out that Alice thought she'll do X" after Y, while Bob thought Alice will do X" before Y, so he hasn't contacted Charlie.

For the second situation, this also happened:

Them: Do we do X or Y?

Me: Up to you, it's not a big deal either way. If you have no preference I suggest flipping a coin.

Them: So do we do X or Y?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Mister Positive Oct 10 at 17:42
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    Country and industry are relevant. Public sector? – Rui F Ribeiro Oct 10 at 21:25
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    Do you use a ticketing system? You should, and it should have owners, so at least "Charlie was waiting for Bob" does not happen (he would reassign the ticket to one on who's turn is to take action). Email is terrible choice for such things. – Matija Nalis Oct 10 at 22:19
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    As a lot of the answers here have already asked, are you their manager? – Steve Smith Oct 11 at 13:36
  • What kind of "blame" do you think they fear of? Are those expectations real? – max630 Oct 12 at 5:28
91

Scot Adams coined the term "blamestorming" and this is a living breathing example.

It's purely a cultural problem, and can be solved with changing the tone a bit.

The only way to stop it is to stigmatize it.

A little bit of sloganeering can go a long way.

THE HARD SELL

  • I'm not interested in excuses, I'm interested in solutions
  • If you don't have any suggestions to fix this, I don't want to hear it
  • That's not constructive, we have a problem that needs to be solved.

THE SOFT SELL

  • We're not interested in blame, we need to fix this.
  • Mistakes happen, what matters is how we fix them

So many people are so afraid of taking the blame that they don't take risks. The only way to reverse this is to make reward risks, and not to tolerate timidity.

Do NOT allow the shirking of duties.

Them: I only do what people in your pay grade tell me to do!

You: and I'm telling you to commit to a decision

This is where a bit of leadership comes in. If they don't want to commit, note the lack of cooperation. Make the point of pain the lack of commitment, not the mistakes or errors. Praise risk taking!

If someone tries to point the finger at someone else's mistake, tell them:

At least Bob came up with an idea and took the risk, what did you do?

If someone comes to you with an email trail, say:

Why did you wait until now to come to me with this?

Don't try to do it on an HR level. HR IS NOT YOUR FRIEND

Treat your team like adults with adult responsibilities. Hand out pocket mirrors if you need to, and have them look in them to see who is to blame. Hiding on the sidelines is letting the team fail. Reward boldness.

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I'm assuming that you are the manager of that team?

Then I'm sorry, but from what you wrote, you seem to be a big part of the problem.

If something goes wrong and a task doesn't get done because everyone thought someone else was doing it, then the reaction of the manager in charge shouldn't be "sigh, now finish the project [and leave me alone]", but rather question how that could happen, if communication can be improved, maybe you should implement a task management system.

If one of your team members doesn't want to make a decision, don't think about how to avoid such members, think about how to work with them and try to understand them. Maybe they would be happy to give their input and just want you to officially sign off on it? Maybe they are angry because despite their experience, they are still on a low pay grade and not getting promoted?

Also a chain of mails, and employees pointing this out, is a sign that people went into cover-your-a-- (CYA) mode. As a manager, you should make a hard break and think about what is going on, how you can improve morale and what you should change as soon as you notice this.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Mister Positive Oct 11 at 11:29
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    Apart from the last paragraph this feels like answering a different question than the one which OP asked. And the last paragraph essentially just repeats the OPs issue. – fgysin Oct 15 at 10:36
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The first situation you describe (the Alice, Bob, and Charlie one) seems very different from the question you ask and the second situation (about avoiding decision making).

The first situation seems like a clear management failure - one of the most primary aspects of manager's job is to make sure everyone on the team knows what they are supposed to be doing, in what order. If people are confused as to who is doing what, when things are due, who they are waiting for, whom is waiting on them, etc., the only person to blame is their manager.

The second situation is more interesting, and I'll address it further.

If you are their manager, you need to break the cycle of decision making fear. One way to start would be to create a "safe" way for people to get comfortable with decision making, while keeping the responsibility on your shoulders.

Take your example:

Me: For this project, these are the circumstances. You have a lot more experience at this than me, so you decide if we should do X or Y.

Them: ...

Them: I only do what people in your pay grade tell me to do!

What you could say in response to that, would be something like - "Okay, I want you to do a brief write up of X and Y, the pros and cons of each, and suggest which you think is the better approach, but I'll make the final decision".

This allows the employees to get comfortable with making decisions (by giving them practice in doing so), without needing to assume the responsibility.

If the employee balks at even making a suggestion, don't make that part of the official assignment. Rather, when you meet to review his/her write up, prod them for their suggestion.

Assuming you agree with their suggestion, make that your decision. If it turns out successful, give credit and praise for that person for making the decision. "Bob, good job choosing X, that seems to have been the right choice". If it turns out to have been the wrong choice, you take the blame, as indeed it was your responsibility to make that final choice.

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    More importantly, if their suggestion turns out to have been wrong, don't make it a terrible experience. Point out that you agreed with their analysis at the time, and that the unexpected does happen, and that you'll work together to fix it. – Robin Bennett Oct 10 at 8:12
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    I would be more explicit than @RobinBennett. If the suggestion was wrong take responsibility for it; if the suggestion was right, it was all their idea. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Oct 10 at 8:30
  • @MartinBonner Yes. That was my intention. I'll edit the answer. – dan.m was user2321368 Oct 10 at 14:31
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    +1 for "keeping the responsibility on your shoulders". Taking responsibility is your job, that's why you're paid more than them. Without this, it's just a manager abrogating their responsibility and using their subordinates as a human shield. The OP's question sounded very much to me like he was engaging in the blame game just as much as the rest, but annoyed his greater power couldn't be leveraged such that he wins it. – benxyzzy Oct 10 at 19:53
  • About the second situation - I tried something like that, they said it's not part of their job scope ... – Allure Oct 11 at 5:14
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Are you the manager? If so, this is your fault.

A response of 'Sigh, now finish the project' is weak, and the problem has gone on far too long. It's time to tell your team what to do, how to do it, and when to get it done by. Ignore the excuses, it's up to you to make decisions. If that includes binning someone from the team because all they produce are excuses, then so be it.

Clear the log jam.

7

"Sigh, now finish the project" hardly seems a constructive way to engage with your project team.

If you're a project manager then it's your job to establish a plan (collaboratively with the team), ensure tasks are clearly outlined and agreed, dependencies are understood and the team have a regular opportunity to provide feedback on progress and blockers.

Managing a project is always a mixture of ask and tell but it should always be based on collaboration and creating an environment of trust, where it's "safe to fail", there's no blame culture but rather a focus on continuous learning and constructive problem solving.

Even saying "You decide" is telling someone what to do, rather than asking "Okay this task needs to be done, what are your thoughts based on your expertise". Make people feel valued and appreciated and in turn you will find that they take alot more ownership of tasks.

If a task has overrun then a PM should be able to pick this up early and also encourage the team to advise them if there are blockers which are preventing them from moving forward. If a team member comes to you with an issue, try your best to support them rather than chiding them, otherwise you'll create an environment of distrust and isolation.

Projects by their nature can often have a high degree of uncertainty so it should always be expected that there will be risks and issues that pop up.

I'd suggest running a mini workshop to outline the outstanding tasks, begin by laying out your understanding of the outstanding tasks and humbly ask the team to contribute their thoughts to establish a plan that everyone buys into.

4

From my experience, over time, a team will align with their manager's expectations. The reason is that, simply, if you do what your manager expects from you, the better your own carreer prospects. If you foster a culture that focuses on self-improvement and a good error culture instead of finger pointing after a mistake, over time your team will change their behavior.

As far as this specific case is concerned, I'm sorry to say that you have to first look into what you as a manager could have done better. If a minor issue causes a month (!) delay in the project, there seems to be something fundamentally wrong in the project management culture. There is two ways your involvement as a manager must have been: you either didn't notice that something was going on for a month or you were doing nothing (at least nothing effective) about it for all that time. Both doesn't reflect well on management.

Next time in a situation like this, schedule a meeting with you and all the involved persons and let them resolve the issue in your presence. Even if your team's technical skills to find a solution exceed yours, you being in the room is important. Your job will be to keep the atmosphere of the meeting calm and factual, to make your team explain their points in a way that you can understand them and - if your team fails to resolve the issue without you - to make a final decision about the way forward. But if you listen carefully and moderate the discussion well, chances are you won't need to make a decision yourself.

A good way to foster error culture in the context of the current project would be to schedule a post-mortem meeting where you analyze the problems of your current project. If you begin with the mistakes that you have done and discuss how to avoid them in future projects, your team will be more open to discuss their mistakes. Strictly avoid any finger pointing and focus on assembling a list of measures to implement in the next project. Do not discuss the fault of any individual team members in that meeting. If you see the need for improvement in individuals, schedule 1:1 meetings with them to discuss that.

4

A quick fix in such situations (and damn, I've seen them before) is to have regular, short status meetings. I cannot emphasize SHORT enough. Nobody wants to be in a weekly one-hour meeting where everyone talks for two hours about what they did and how their dog feels.

Agile programming has a good concept with the stand-up meeting. Steal from there.

The basic idea is that instead of sending a mail after two weeks, people have an opportunity for a quick "oh, btw. what about task X?" question. That is the whole purpose of the meeting. Details about how someone solved something within his assigned task are irrelevant. Focus on only the high-level status of tasks and on the relations between tasks - if anyone is waiting for anyone else, the meeting is the place to say it. You will have to establish that meeting and its culture. And you need someone (yourself probably with such a small team) who writes notes because any action steps ("Bob needs to send the code for X to Charlie so he can start working on Y") need to be noted down so they can be followed up.

I established a similar thing in a different setting with a much larger team years ago, and after some tuning we arrived at a version that I still believe in. For every task or project currently open, whoever is responsible for it states in no more than a few sentences:

  • current status
  • what's the next step
  • any problems

That keeps it short, fast and moving and with 3 people you can be through with the meeting in 10 minutes tops. I went through that with 12 people in 30 minutes on most days, but I had a strict "move any extended questions or discussions to after the status reports" policy.

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If you are the manager, and there is over a month delay because each of three people is waiting for the others to do something, then that’s your fault. Not saying that it’s not these three people’s fault as well, but it is your fault first.

If these three people are not going to do things out of their own initiative, then yes, you have to tell them. Tell them even more that they need to go on without you - but be aware that if decisions are made without consulting you, they may be decisions that you don’t agree with, and you’ll have to live with that.

Maybe most important is that each one of them needs to know that if no progress is made then they can and should come to you.

0

Use a project manager and task - progress lists to do a project. Make him responsible for instructing progress, give him a pay incentive if they complete the task, give him nothing if he fails. It will cause him to have a reason to use his authority to make the task advance.

Managers are supposed to be able to manage their staff. If they can't manage teams effectively, they aren't managing.

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    this sounds pretty much like micro-management. Wonder how this is supposed to help address the question asked given that it is typically considered counterproductive. See How to Answer – gnat Oct 10 at 9:16
  • Assigning a project manager is a normal way to deal with a project. bi-weekly reports amount to 10 minutes a week of project reports, not management or micro-management of the project. – com.prehensible Oct 10 at 9:23
  • You just assume there is no project manager. And financial incentives don't work as well as many people think. They come with a bunch of problems that make them not worthwile. Besides, why should you incentivize your PM for doing a normal job? – Sefe Oct 10 at 13:43
  • Because lack of incentives is communism. If PM cant manage the project he is disqualified. Get a PM that can deliver. And progress reports are a problem also? – com.prehensible Oct 11 at 6:38
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    Micromanager is fine for people who need it and god awful for people who don’t. If three people manage to make no progress for four weeks because each is waiting for the other two, then someone needs micromanaging:-) – gnasher729 Oct 11 at 11:34

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