Need to fix a finger pointing problem?

If you have finger pointing in your organization (business or family) you probably have a role definition and assignment problem.

The old expression “too many cooks in the kitchen” doesn’t mean that there are too many people involved in the food preparation, it means there are too many people trying to do the same job. They’re suffering from role definition and assignment issues and guess what? Conflict, confusion and disfunction and finger pointing happen and the project is doomed to fail.

You can often spot a problem in the making when someone says, “Fred and Jane, you work together on this”. That’s a sign of impending trouble. That’s typically a technique to avoid assigning roles and mapping out workflows that will come to back to bite Fred, Jane and the rest of the team later.

By the way, this is not limited to business settings. This can happen in your home as well. How many times do fights break out because no one was clear on whose job it was to take out the trash or put the dishes away? You have a role definition problem.

Putting this in another context, imagine a track and field relay team carrying the baton down the track together. That doesn’t work. No one does that, because it’s obvious it won’t work.

But that’s essentially what happens to teams when leaders don’t take the time to map out workflows and assign roles. You have multiple people trying to carry the baton at the same time, tripping over each other.

In the track and field analogy, the work required is to use four people to get a baton around the track as quickly as possible. The leader/coach establishes and assigns roles to individuals – Starter, 2nd leg, 3rd leg, Anchor, based on the work that needs to get done, and the skills of the team members. They don’t all just pile up on the starting line and "work on it together".

All the members of the relay know their assignment, their role, and what’s expected of them BEFORE they step onto the track, and they fulfill their work individually for the greater success of the team.

I learned this lesson the hard way early on in my career and it was probably one of the best lessons I learned, because I never made the mistake again.

We had a critical program (this if often when these situations occur), we were being audited by the government, and my boss wanted to make sure nothing got missed, because any errors or mistakes would carry big negative implications for the organization.

So, she double-layered the work – essentially having several people responsible for doing the work and submitting it to the auditors. I was a junior level staff then and assumed the CEO always knows what they’re doing, so I didn’t question the process at all. But it turned into a big mess with multiple people submitting differing documents, and the process had the opposite outcome to what the CEO had intended. Instead of being more thorough, it made the organization look bad on multiple levels. It caused a ton of clean up with the regulators, and bad press for us internally and externally.

That’s another irony of skipping the mapping and role definition step, it ends up causing the team so much additional work on the back-end cleaning it up. And everyone feels bad and like a failure, and no one likes that feeling, so the finger pointing begins.

The CEO called me in for my dose of the finger pointing. Fortunately, I had the nativity to just say what I thought went wrong. I told her, “You assigned too many people, and no one knew who was in charge or what the process was”. The lightbulb went off for her as to what her actions inadvertently caused. And it taught me - I don’t ever want to be in that situation again, that was bad and it was avoidable, by just doing some work upfront.

So, what do leaders do to avoid or clean up a finger pointing situation? First of all, this is a great opportunity for collaboration. Invite the “team” (could be business unit or family members) in and lay out the work that needs to get done. Ask them to help design a process to ensure it gets done efficiently, effectively with no one dropping the baton.

Go through the work step by step with the team and ask this question: “Who on our team is best suited to do this work?” The answer may surprise you. It may not be the oldest son who’s best suited to take out the trash because he has a broken leg. Or it may be Jane who’s best suited for step #2 because she has a particular skill no one was accessing until she volunteered it now.

Document the process, and the handoffs, and how you will measure success. Test and refine as necessary until you have a smooth, reliable process.

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