When we see problems at work, we naturally connect problems to people. It’s human nature. We essentially blame the person closest to the problem. For example, a late project is the manager’s fault, or lost files are the secretary’s fault. Worse, the blame often taints our view of the person’s character. We jump to the conclusion that the manager is incompetent and the secretary is disorganized. 

This is called the fundamental attribution error. We naturally blame people, even when circumstances are the primary issue. The fundamental attribution error hurts managers and executives, because it distracts you from fixing the processes behind the problem. 

Regardless of the problems you’re seeing, there are situational cues that your people problem is really a situation problem.

Burnout. Stress is normal; burnout is not. When you see evidence of persistent mental or physical exhaustion in a person or team, something is wrong.  Burnout manifest itself in short tempers, low productivity, missed goals, and apathy (lack of engagement due to lack of energy).

Email overload. Receiving more than 10 internal emails per day is not normal. A daily deluge of internal email is a sure sign that your team’s communication is broken—usually either delegation and reporting processes or meetings. Email overload typically looks like people are disorganized. People drop important assignments and don’t communicate promptly. Client needs may go unresolved as important information drowns in a sea of unread emails. 

Overdue projects. No project should ever be overdue. If you choose the work to be done, the people doing it, and the date it’s due, you control enough variables to make every project happen on time. Overdue projects look like people are disorganized or lazy, missing projects because they didn’t focus. In return, people working on overdue projects may perceive management as unreasonable or out of touch.

Long hours. If a person or team consistently works long hours, something is definitely wrong with the situation. The solution might be improved personal processes, but more often it’s a team communication or focus problem. People working long hours get tired, cranky, and eventually burn out. They don’t communicate well and may be behind on some initiatives. They eventually pass the buck and lack initiative, because they don’t have time or energy for additional work.

Broken meetings. People should love meetings, not dread them. Meetings can be effective, efficient, and some of your team’s most productive time. If people avoid meetings, fall asleep in them, or don’t engage in lively group discussion, something is wrong with your meetings. Broken meetings often accompany email overload and overdue projects. Ineffective meetings breed complainers and management vs. team struggles. If your team isn’t happily moving in the same direction, take a careful look at your meetings.

Turnover. If you keep losing key employees or promising-looking new hires, something is very wrong with your processes. Great talent tends to stay with great companies, and great processes support great cultures. If you want to find the root of the problem, you need to ask your employees.

Pressure to meet goals. Applying pressure is one of the most common and least effective methods of meeting goals. If pressure is a staple in your management, step back and evaluate the work process. Management pressure creates a management versus team dynamic that will hurt you in the long run. You’ll get farther, faster by improving the processes than you will by pushing people to work harder, and it’s a lot more fun.

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Broken processes. People are hard to change, but most people respond naturally to positive environmental changes. Place a picnic table outside, and some people will eat lunch outside. Simplify client billing process, and people report more billable hours. Improve engagement in meetings, and problems are addressed before they demand major new projects. Give people natural tools for handling workflow, and people send fewer emails while accomplishing more. 

Great fixes solve multiple problems with one small change. The best fixes usually focus on bottlenecks in the workflow. Fixing bottlenecks maximizes the effectiveness of the changes you make while also making the team’s work easier. Fixing bottlenecks is easier than changing people. And it’s more effective, because even average employees respond well to better workflow processes. Processes, especially ones people hate, are easily changed.

Smaller changes, faster fixes

When you are changing processes in your organization, avoid the urge to fix everything that is broken all at once. Find the bottlenecks and focus on the smallest possible fix. Insightful small changes produce quick wins and solve more than one problem. When your team sees you implementing the right changes, they feel the wins and trust you with additional changes.

Make a long-term plan for a series of small fixes. Present fixes to the team a few at a time. As soon as one highly effective, small change has taken hold, introduce the next. You’ll see your team transform quickly and happily as people naturally adjust to the new workflow.

Sometimes people problems really are people problems

When you avoid blaming people, you can focus on situations and find simple process fixes. 

Most people love easier processes. Occasionally, however, someone may respond slowly or not at all. Listen carefully to make sure the improved process hasn’t secretly created new issues. Remember that people resist change for good reasons. As you listen, it helps them buy into and refine the changes. 

When you’ve fixed the situation problems and listened carefully, sometimes one person may still be a problem. Because you made good process changes—and because other people responded--the true personal problems finally become clear and actionable.