ManagementSpeak: We need to hold people accountable.
Translation: We need a ready supply of scapegoats.
This week’s contributor, not wanting to join the ranks of available scapegoats, requested anonymity.

“We had an employee job satisfaction survey that was done every quarter for a year or two back in the early 1990’s,” reports a regular correspondent. “One question was ‘How satisfied are you that your management team is giving you the support you need to do your job?’ For two or three surveys running, the answer came back as absolutely NOT satisfied. Following that, the question disappeared. When asked about it, our VP said ‘We removed that question — it was skewing the survey results.’ ”

The decision to remove the survey question suggests one of two possibilities. Either the company’s executives consider the company’s employees to be their antagonists, or … come to think of it, no alternative come to mind. Too many executives share this mindset — some unconsciously, some overtly: “If it weren’t for all these lazy, hard-to-manage, ignorant employees we’d have a great company.” It’s why employee surveys are often nothing more than window-dressing, designed to convince those lazy, hard-to-manage, ignorant employees that they really love working for the executives who treat them with such respect. It also might explain why outsourcing is such a popular strategy: Entrusting the success of your business to some other company’s lazy, hard-to-manage, ignorant employees is a much safer bet than entrusting it to your own.

Here’s how every business is supposed to work: Leaders set direction and create buy-in. Managers make sure the work of the company gets done properly. Staff do the work of the company, creating its products and services. Customers show up, pay for the products and services, allowing the company to pay its leaders, managers and staff.

Sounds like a simple collaboration, doesn’t it? It should be. Unfortunately, a false equivalency — thinking that not failing is the same as succeeding — often gets in the way, driving exactly the wrong behavior throughout the organization. Executives and managers who accept this false equivalency figure that left to their own devices, employees will mess up. So they focus their efforts on preventing that from happening — through close supervision, by “holding people accountable,” or both. It’s a very short step from there to concluding that when staff don’t fail, management deserves the credit.

That leaves the staff, who are on the receiving end of this attitude, to figure out their safest course of action. It’s easily predicted: They keep their heads down, take no initiative, and hide away from anything that looks like a risk. And the company becomes a dysfunctional organization — afraid to make a mistake. On a good day it aspires to blandness.

It seems like such a simple inference, too: Failure is the condition of not succeeding, so if we prevent failure we will have succeeded. It’s one of those ideas that looks good on the PowerPoint but doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

To clarify the difference between preventing failure and achieving success, consider two different batting coaches with two different styles.

The first works hard to prevent failure. The batter is in the box, faces the pitch, swings, and misses. “We don’t pay people to miss!” yells the batting coach. “When you swing at the ball we expect you to hit it!”

Not wanting to miss the next pitch, the batter doesn’t swing. “We don’t pay you to stand there with the bat on your shoulder!” explodes the batting coach. “You’re supposed to make contact with the ball! If you don’t on the next pitch, I’ll bench you!”

On the third pitch the batter makes contact the surest way possible — he bunts.

The second coach waits until batting practice. “You’re batting 230,” he says. “You can do a lot better. Try changing one thing. Don’t swing so hard. When you do, your muscles fight each other. That takes power away from the hit. It also pulls the bat out of line. So stop trying to hit so hard — stroke the ball instead.”

The first coach tries to prevent failure. His method is the obvious one: Fear of consequences. The second coach tries to foster success. To do that he increases confidence and improves technique.

These are your alternatives, too. You can hold employees accountable, or increase their confidence and improve their technique. This isn’t particularly complicated. The better choice is, unfortunately, less common than it should be.

Listen to your managers talk among themselves — do they talk about their staff as allies or antagonists? Do they spend their time making sure nobody messes up? Is “zero defects” their highest aspiration? If so, you’re leading the land of the bland.

I’m confident you can do better.