A-B-C’s to build a self-correcting work team

by Gregory Lay, Heartily WorkingTM columnist

Which weighs more?
One pound of authority, or
one pound of problem solving?


From: Looking For Problem Solvers

When something goes wrong in production or customer service, you’d think that everybody on that team would want to do something to correct it. But that’s not what’s happening. Our employees just carry out the routine, even when they can see that it isn’t working! I’ve asked why, and am told that people are afraid of being blamed if they speak up.

Does this make sense? It seems like blame would come when they don’t speak up and let things continue to be done poorly. How does an organization go about building self-correcting teams that don’t wait for somebody in authority to fix a problem?


To: Looking

Irony, anyone? The person with authority wants people without authority to fix the problems! Let’s go to the A-B-C’s

A is for Authority

You’d like your employees to recognize and resolve problems without waiting for somebody who’s been given authority. That’s not likely to happen. Whether granted or assumed, it takes authority to fix a problem. Workers who are unwilling to risk exercising unofficial authority because that might annoy people with formal authority haven’t been given the tools to fix your problems.

So the question is, “How do you spread authority out to everybody without losing control?” Here are four ideas:

1. Explain your intentions

“Because I said so” is no longer a privilege of authority. No matter how big the boss, they must explain their actions to their team every time. When given explanations, people see the intended purpose and are more likely to make appropriate adjustments when things get off track. Equally importantly, it establishes that when somebody has a good reason for their actions, that’s a good reason for assuming the authority to fix a problem.

2. Use task charts

Most organizations use an authority chart to show people where they fit. Hierarchical charts imply that authority flows downward and – at some point – has stopped flowing.

Since you want to authority to extend to every role, show them their responsibility to a task, which suggests they have equal authority make the task succeed, rather than seeking the approval of an authority-figure somewhere above them.

3. Pass it along

Everybody with formal authority – managers, supervisors, team leaders – should submit a quarterly report on how they’re giving their authority away. That is, who have they put in charge of a task that will develop that person as a future leader and help them form the habit of exercising responsible authority?

When authority is limited to a few, those few tend to be overly-impressed with their power. But when authority is invested in many, they learn that the only way to maintain authority is to use it with wisdom for the sake of the organization and its defined tasks.

4. Describe the corrections

Every time somebody creates a learning opportunity – what would usually be called a ‘mistake’ – ask them to describe how they’ll do it better next time.

The people listening to those descriptions just ensure that they’ll exercise their authority with greater wisdom. When anybody tries to solve a problem by relinquishing authority (a fear strategy), they’re asked to come up with a different solution that keeps them in charge of their responsibilities.

B is for Blame.

Authority can’t be exercised while watching out for blame, so Blame must be removed from your ‘Problem Analysis Tool Kit.’ Every time somebody offers a blame statement, the response is, “We don’t use Blame here – Trust and Empowerment are better tools.”

A person in fear of being blamed naturally assumes a defensive posture and is unable to take positive action. Only when they know that they aren’t subject to blame can they freely participate in problem-solving. The nature of blame is to focus on what’s already happened as a reason for reducing future authority. The nature of empowerment is to focus on what we can do to positively influence what will happen next.

So blame is about the past and empowerment is about the future – which direction do you want to go?

C is for Communication.

When things are going wrong, doubt diminishes problem-solving and forces doubters into a cave of silence. “Maybe somebody else will speak up, so that I can dodge any risk.”

Communication is how we examine, refine, and express problem-solving authority. If you want your team to be self-correcting, they’ll have to be open and friendly communicators with well-practiced honesty, trust, and listening skills.

A communication error is a belief that you’ve got to know what you’re talking about before you speak. If everybody keeps their mouth shut until they know all the answers – you’ll have an uncommunicative team that won’t see problems coming.

Questions and suggestions are the gold standard of self-corrective communication. Teams must listen and respond to questions, and trust that every idea is worth examining.

Those are the A-B-C’s of self-correcting teams – everybody is comfortable with Authority, safe from Blame, and committed to open Communication.

Memo from Eric Werkowitz: “A position of authority is neither necessary nor sufficient for the exercise of leadership.”

JobWise: Speak Up

Confrontation doesn’t mean getting into an argument. If something is happening that isn’t helping the organization, it must be courteously and courageously confronted – always addressing the situation, not the individual.

Failure to address a toxic situation means the situation will keep happening until it’s gotten bad enough to create the very battle you tried to avoid – or else everybody becomes accustomed to inhaling the toxic situation and thinks that’s the natural environment.

Confronting a situation starts with making an appointment to express concern without anger and with willingness to listen and be supportive of somebody with a different opinion.

© 2009 Heartily WorkingTM

Gregory Lay’s Heartily WorkingTM responds to your questions about workplace concerns. Send your questions to Ask@HeartilyWorking.com.