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Passion, People and Principles

It’s THEIR fault

post # 206 — October 4, 2006 — a Client Relations post

Something happens to me whenever I give speeches. At some point, when I am doing what I was hired to do and explaining how the people in my audience could perform their roles better, someone always sticks their hand up and says: “It’s not us, it’s them!”

I have hundreds of these examples, but a few will make the point. They can be very dramatic.

Once, I was (as instructed) explaining to a group of middle-level people what professionalism meant, and how they might handle themselves in dealing with clients and with others. We were using the anonymous voting machines that I like to use.

“The question I’d like to pose to the group” one person said, “is how many people here think that those who are senior to us role model these behaviors?”

I was young and dumb enough to let the vote proceed. Barely 15% of the audience thought that those ahead of them in the organization “lived the values.”

To prove how REALLY young and dumb I was, I thought I would be praised and congratulated with gratitude for having uncovered a barrier to improvement. Instead, I was accused of agitating the troops against the interests of the people who hired me. I never got hired by them again.

Although I did make the mistake again — many times. (I’m a slow learner)

I remember, years later, being with the senior partners of a major consulting firm, talking about investing in current client relationships (This was just after The Trusted Advisor had been published.). Again, someone interrupted to say “This is all fine, but there’s no incentive for us to do that — all our incentives around new clients.”

The top management was in the room. I waited for them to jump in and reconcile the contradiction. After all, these were the same people who had hired me and assigned my topic.

I waited. They stayed silent. I waited a little bit more.

The eyes of the audience were not on them, but on me. Everyone wanted to know what the outsider would say about the contradiction between the assigned topic and the incentive scheme.

And you know what? I said it was a contradiction. The audience agreed. Management scowled. We talked about what changes would be necessary to get everyone in the room willingly participating in the behaviors management wanted to see.

I was never re-hired. I had not stuck to the assigned topics. I even got a call from the secretary of one off the bosses to ask “How do we get more of this Trusted Advisor stuff without having to have you?”

Come to think of it, it’s amazing that over the years I have managed to earn a living!

So, what are the lessons? Well, I’d love to hear some advice about how to handle these situations better. They happen ALL the time — to this day. In fact, I’m coming to believe that the very reason top management hires speakers is to talk about things that they can’t get their people to do, and hope the speaker will convince the crowd for them.

So, it’s gonna happen. It’s probably gonna happen to you. Someone’s going to say to you “It ain’t our fault, it’s THEIRS — meaning management.” How are you going to handle it , then and there, in front of , say, 50 to 300 people?



Norma Laming said:

David, I am a UK barrister who has just started to teach would-be solicitors for their professional examinations. One thing I have had to learn very quickly is to push problems and questions back to the student to help them think develop.

So I would suggest that one option is to turn this situation back to the audience and use it to explore with them the fundamental questions and principles that you have been sharing with us since your first book. You will know far better than I what is right at that particular moment but, as they are sitting their in effect blaming others, then perhaps challenge them with a few points about taking responsibility for oneself in one’s personal and professional life?

posted on October 5, 2006

Phil Gott said:

I’ve heard this time and time again. The fault is always at the next level up (strangely even when you get to what you thought was the top). I’m not sure I have always handled the point ideally but on one particular occasion the outcome was ideal. Here’s what happened:

I was running a training programme for customer service team leaders when one of them stopped me and said “yes, we agree with all this, it all sounds great, if only our managers would let us get on and do these things”. The other team leaders nodded their agreement.

I suggested they should talk to their managers about this. Initially they were reluctant to do this. They didn’t think their managers would listen and they feared recriminations. Nonethless, to their credit, they decided that three of them were willing to act as spokespeople so I arranged a meeting with their management team.

This organisation had recently introduced customer service standards so they based their presentation around what they called “management service standards”: the service they expected from their managers.

They opened by summarising what the management team could expect from them (100% commitment, all promises followed through, etc). The managers were rightly impressed. Then came the crunch. They said that, to do these things, this is what we expect from you the management team and out came the management service standards. These included such points as “when we ask you for a case decision we expect it within 24 hours” and “when you ask us into your offfice we expect your total attention with no interruptions” etc. Quite bold.

After they had finished, the management team agreed, somewhat sheepishly, that everything they were asking for was reasonable and they signed up to those management service standards right there.

That organisation went on to deservedly win a prestigious national customer service award.

All credit to those team leaders for coming up with that great idea of management service standards, and all credit to their managers for being strong enough to accept them.

posted on October 5, 2006

Heidi Ehlers said:

Stick to your knitting. Your success comes from your speaking from a place of integrity, your authenticity and your ‘passion’ for the ‘people’ you come into contact with and your ‘principles’.

I don’t hear you commenting on that fact that you felt you were saying something out of integrity with what you believe, out of integrity with what you’ve published, and out of integrity with who you are.

You’re just commenting on the outcome.

Whether you get booked back or not, you’ve affected that organization. And I have to believe that you get immense joy out of working with organizations that transform as the result of your input. The ones that WANT to transform will hire you back and DO.

Covert clouded mixed messages need the dark shadows to lurk in to fester and prosper unaudited. What you’ve done is taken a 1000 Watt lightbulb and shone it on the issue. Once you shine a light on a covert message it loses it power.

Congratulations. Job well done.

posted on October 5, 2006

Michael Webb said:


A similar thing has happened to me that might reveal part of the problem. I was with a sales training company hired to improve the skills of sales agents in a call center. What we taught them improved the quality of their calls, and results were starting to improve. However, the calls were taking longer than before.

Senior management, who had hired us to improve the quality of the calls, insisted on measuring performance in terms of quantity of calls per week (in addition to sales). They felt there was safety in numbers, you know? So they rejected our recommendations.

Needless to say, all the money they spent in training went out the window. In this case, and in many others I’ve seen, it is as if management is stuck in a certain “view of the world,” and fails to realize their viewpoint could be (and should be) examined. To non-managers, it feels like a sort of “noblesse oblige” attitude. However, it might stem from ignorance.

This kind of thing happens a lot in the TQM and Six Sigma field, where one of the major tasks is to teach management “systems thinking,” as opposed to the functional “thinking” they learned in business school. Systems thinking seeks to explain the behavior of a system in terms of the cause and effect interactions of its components.

In your examples, executives might have had a lack of systems thinking (a case of blind spots!), so they couldn’t see what was obvious to everyone else. Systems thinking would have required the executives to address the contradiction between the reward systems and the self-interests of the individuals.

As Deming pointed out, it is management’s job to construct the system people work in to enable them to succeed. It might be like that old consultant’s saying “The last thing a fish discovers is water.”


Michael Webb


posted on October 5, 2006

ann michael said:

Do you conduct any sessions with the executive management team in advance? What about talking to a few “key opinion leaders” (at any hierarchical level)?

One thing that occurred to me is that maybe a bit more reconnaissance is in order — a test run of the message with key people.

Will that eliminate the problem? No, but it will make you aware of it before you’re in front of the room. It will also give you an opportunity to strategize how to handle it in advance.

If it’s really a mess — you might decide that it’s not the best place for you to spend your time OR offer them appropriate services to help them address their issues.

posted on October 5, 2006

David (Maister) said:

I shouldn’t be, but I’m reassured that I’m not the only one with this experience!

posted on October 5, 2006

Jordan Furlong said:

It’s difficult for people to move from “It’s management’s fault” to “It’s my responsibility.” Employees often feel no personal obligation to fix a mess that someone else created. Maybe not, but it’s their responsibility to create the best possible context for their own success. Managers can’t read minds: they may be clueless, but someone has to clue them in — and as David’s stories demonstrate, third-party messengers will be shot.

Phil’s example seems like an ideal solution — the consultant could broker a meeting to air the problems, but he or she has to stay quiet and let the employees explain the problem. It gives the grievance more credibility with management than if the consultant had raised it, and more importantly, it makes the employees shoulder the responsibility (and take any credit) for effecting positive change in their workplace. But if neither the employees nor management is willing to openly acknowledge a problem, well, the consultant is better off somewhere else anyway.

Michael — today’s Dilbert (http://www.dilbert.com/comics/dilbert/archive/dilbert-20061005.html) is remarkably apropos to your anecdote.

posted on October 5, 2006

Florin Petean said:

I think that’s one important step in awareness is to see other’s mistakes. It’s just a step. My mother-in-law (of course, my mother would never do that, to give you just an example of how I am practicing what I’m preaching before) is very happy in observing her friends problems, unhappiness, rudeness etc. I seldom heard her saying something about her. There is a method I’ll use in testing my theories about human kind — to ask myself, sometimes with honesty and a few times in a humble way: Does this “rule” apply to me? It does not make it an universal truth, but the answer is YES! I have a hole set of external causes and circumstances that rebuilds my self-esteem when I screw things (or people around). And I’m less sympathetic to others problems. Is this the result of the fact that I have to live with me every second of my life?

So, I must say that I’m happy when they say: “It’s THEM!” It gives me a solid proof that our discussion has sense for them. The behaviours or other issues are recognised and validated by participants — and are back in the real life, after passing through the “holy” stage of ideas.

Sometimes are just steamy reactions that I’ve got to deal with — as oil is coming with pressure when it’s discovered, I let it go!

Then we can move on, sometimes with a simple question suggesting — what about you. Preceded usually by examples from my experience — and I have a lot, believe me! — to make the process of introspection more easy.

posted on October 5, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Yes, Florin. sometimes, I say “Yes, it may be their fault but if you wait tuntil they change you will wait until hell freezes over. Do you want to wait for others to do the correct, sensible thing to do, or do you want to take charge of your own career, right now, in this room?”

It doesn’t always work to break the logjam, but sometimes it does.

posted on October 6, 2006

Mott Williamson said:

This is certainly a weighty subject. I believe psychologists describe folks who overly blame others for the condition that they or the organization is in as having a “character disorder.” The reverse, overly blaming yourself, is a “neurosis.” A key for any individual is maintaining a proper balance between the two.

I have also discovered two types of reality in businesses. First, there is official reality. The picture of the world that the owner or management want to believe is true. Second there is ground reality-what is really going on. I am not disparaging official reality here. That is the place where the company’s vision and mission lie. But, ignoring ground reality is what most management/owners do. The key to getting to official reality conditions is to confront ground reality daily to transform it to official reality.

Now that I have totally obscured my point, back to your question. It is everybody’s job in a business to find out what is going on, and make the appropriate responses so the business can become what it is intended to be. One of the best things any consultant can do is to help a business discover or rediscover its purpose, and identify most of the obstacles preventing it from making the dreams come true. So when the audience makes that statement, you, as a consultant, have done a very good thing and more than earned your fee. You have helped management identify a significant obstacle to moving the business forward. In many ways, you have done your job. Businesses that ignore ground reality will never make official realty come true.

posted on October 7, 2006

Charlie Green said:

There are several things going on in your example: junior folks denying responsibility, senior folks refusing to step up to bat, and senior management’s failure to continue hearing the truth from you. Let me speak just to the first.

I often find juniors saying that their seniors are asking them to shade the truth, sell things not in the client’s best interest, or otherwise behave badly.

I suggest that juniors, when faced with a senior pressuring them to shade the truth, simply say, “let me make sure I understand; you’re not asking me to tell a lie, are you?”

When asked to do something not in the client’s best interest, I suggest that juniors consider who it is that they are allowing to manage their career. Are they ceding responsibily for their own reputation with clients to “senior management?” Or are they willing to be responsible for their own careers by standing up for their own beliefs?

I don’t see this primarily as an exercise in ethics, but in commonsense. Ducking responsibility and indulging in blame-throwing is short-sighted and generally ineffective; taking responsibility is an act of freedom, and a lesson better learned early.

posted on October 7, 2006

Francine McKenna said:


One of the great things about having your own firm, especially if it’s a one-man show, is that you can choose who your clients are. When I started my own firm, I told people that after 20 years working , I finally wanted to do what I was good at, for people I wanted to work with, in the locations I wanted to be. I also was willing to take the consequences of this strategy.

As you can imagine, it took me a while to get any clients and I eventually gave up and went back to a firm. I am now on my own again and re-committed to making sure I follow those three principles. And I am willing to take less in order to do it.

There is nothing wrong with being the messenger of a difficult or unpopular message. That’s almost a definition of a consultant. If they had the ability to do or say what they’ve hired you for, they wouldn’t have hired you. But if you have principles, if you have the right answer, don’t compromise. The consultant who does or says whatever the clietn asks, even if they disagree, is nothing more than hired help, not a trusted advisor.

posted on October 9, 2006

Erek Ostrowski said:


Assuming you’re looking for ways to deal with this type of situation with integrity, while at the same time managing to retain the respect and loyalty of your clients, I would advise taking the conversation out of the realm of fault and blame entirely. The reason people in this situation resist the idea of individual responsibility is because most people associate being responsible with being at fault or being to blame. It’s up to you as a speaker to create a context for responsibility that has people understand the power of being responsible. No small task, for sure!

You could try to introduce the notion that the kind of responsibility that really makes a difference has nothing to do with blame or fault, but rather the willingness to take something on as though you are the sole owner and creator of the situation. It’s the willingness to relate to oneself this way that makes a difference, especially when it seems like, and it probably is someone else’s “fault”. Who cares whose fault it is? What difference does it make to assign blame? Where has that gotten us so far? Assuming those who are “to blame” may never accept the blame, where does that leave us?

The bottom line is, what kind of experience do you want to have in your job? The power of responsibility as a creative force, as opposed to fault or blame, is that it shifts people’s experience from hopelessness and resignation to empowerment, ownership, and vast possibility.

For those who are willing to adopt this new context for responsibility, doors open up to many new conversations. From the perspective of someone who is empowered by responsibility, you can move the conversation into action and communication. What actions can you take? What conversations can you have? Can you loby to adapt the incentive plan to include efforts to build relationships with current clients? These conversations become possible when people move responsibility out of the realm of fault and blame. All you have to do is get people to see responsibility as a tool that they can use to balance their personal needs and commitments with the concerns and commitments of the company.

I really hope this makes some sense because this is something I love to talk about! Somtimes I get a little too excited and try to say too much! If I’m unclear, let me know.

Thanks for the opportunity to contribute,

Erek Ostrowski

posted on October 12, 2006