How to Intervene When an Executive Starts Acting Like a Victim


We Jamaicans take many of our cues from leaders. This is never truer than when a leader acts like a victim, blaming everyone else for sub-par results. Eventually, employees join the blame game, actively avoiding responsibility before fingers turn on them. Things worsen to the point where only an intervention can save the company from ruin.

In a recent meeting with a CEO, I listened as he blamed his colleagues and staff for the predicament his organization was in. He had a long list of factual observations. Their actions were saddening, and I had no reason to doubt his veracity.

However, when I suggested that, from my prior experience in many client firms, “The fish stinks the worst at the head” he visibly bristled. Dismissing my suggestion, he doubled down, adding further stories to prove that I was incorrect: he was the victim. The others needed to have their heads examined.

What made the situation maddening were the facts: he had risen to the top after 30+ years. Also, profits were a thing of the past: for the prior decade, the company had barely broken even. Yet, in his mind, he had nothing to do with its poor performance.

As a manager, what can you do to prevent this kind of terrible end-result? How can you make sure it never happens in your organization?

Pay Attention to Hard-to-See Angles

Companies slip into having a culture of complaints gradually. Complaining, normally a rare habit, becomes a team sport played by a critical mass of staff. When you find that valuable meeting time is being spent in old, familiar gripes which never reach resolution, be suspicious.

Start by appreciating that a single complaint is quite different from a culture of complaining. The first requires action, perhaps produced by a fruitful discussion. The latter requires an intervention by someone who understands the peculiarities of dysfunctional corporate cultures. They tend to be bad in many of the same ways.

The intervenor must explain to managers that the behavior is like an addictive drug which carries both a short-term benefit and a long-term cost.

The benefit derives from an avoidance of responsibility. Complainers paint themselves as the weak, helpless recipients of injustice. In the eyes of the CEO mentioned earlier, he had nothing to do with the state of affairs and was permanently innocent of any blame or fault.

As complainers perpetuate this frame of mind, they exact a terrible price. Their feigned weakness renders them inactive. Lacking creativity, they lose their capacity to implement real solutions to problems. They turn themselves into bystanders.

When the complainer happens to be the CEO, it turns the corporation into a battlefield between him and the rest of his company. It’s no surprise that poor results ensue because the behavior is also highly contagious. When employees compete with each other for the right to be seen as the biggest victim, everyone ends up hating their jobs.

These are hard-to-see angles, so few distinguish persistent complaining for what it really is—the start of real trouble.


Resist the Temptation to Withdraw

However, seeing the true problem isn’t enough. If you have joined a team which already has a complaining culture, it’s only human to hide out; to make sure you are far away from the gripers-in-chief. If you get caught in a situation where you can’t escape their presence, you go completely silent.

Obviously, this won’t work in the end. In fact, it is a sly mirror-image of the same refusal to accept responsibility.

Instead, fixing the problem calls for the very opposite. When colleagues refuse to assume ownership, the most helpful action is not to retreat, but to expand. Only those who choose to step up and take greater responsibility have a chance of making a difference.

Managers who do so empower themselves. Without waiting for someone to give them permission, they make a private decision to act which is likely to produce noticeable, public results.

Get Help from Others

One of the end results might be a group intervention conducted with the complainers. In this kind of carefully managed confrontation, each person plays a predetermined role in a group discussion designed to call a stop to the behavior. It’s a last ditch, high-stakes effort: oftentimes, an outsider is included to prepare the team or even play the part of referee.

What makes the risk worthwhile is the possibility of succeeding.  In the very worst situations, it’s the best the team can do, and it’s better than cowering in fear. In the end, it benefits everyone concerned and can pull the company out of a bad spot.

There’s no guarantee whatsoever, but a top executive who stops being a victim can make a tremendous difference to the health of the bottom-line and the company’s culture.


Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. Missed a column? To receive a free download with articles from 2010-2016, send email to




Don’t write off stupid employees – here’s how they can deliver smart outcomes

Are you stuck with employees who don’t have what it takes to make necessary improvements to the way work is done? If so, avoid the mistake of believing they can’t improve your company’s processes. Here’s why.
As you analyze your operations, you may already recognize there are processes which need to be dramatically improved. If high unit costs, poor customer service, long lead times and bad quality are some of the problems you face daily, consider these to be signs confirming the need for an urgent change.
But as you survey the situation, your heart sinks. Your staff appears to be unable to implement even the most obvious improvements. They are happy to repeat the same broken processes each day, producing identical, poor results.
In response, you may be tempted to take a shortcut, by following the three steps of Method A:
1. 1. Find an expert to define better processes, preferably automated.
2. 2. Train people how to use the new process.
3. 3. Measure the results.
It looks simple and commonsensical. By itself, it’s hard to imagine any other approach. But there is another, Method B:
1. 1. Select a team of in-process employees to improve the process.
2. 2. Heavily facilitate their improvement efforts.
3. 3. Measure the results.
By comparison, the second approach looks to be more difficult, and take longer. Yet, it’s the better method to follow under the following three conditions.
#1 – When current knowledge is lacking
Most local companies don’t have documented processes. This leads to an inevitable gap between the way a process is supposed to work and the way it actually functions. To survive, staff members develop shortcuts and workarounds, then pass them from one person to another by word-of-mouth.
Outside experts cannot understand these nuances by conducting a few informational interviews. Their attempts fail because an unmanaged process falls apart in unpredictable ways. Some of these failures are rare, with remedies known only to a few insiders. While sitting in an interview, they forget to mention these errors, blinded by their unconscious competence.
To make things worse, in people-intensive processes, knowledge is widely distributed. Discovering the true nature of a process’ performance has to be a group activity where knowledge is combined and documented in real time. Usually, such sessions raise a host of surprising issues. Together, these reasons support Method B.
Reason #2 – You may require more buy-in than you think
Implementers of automation often believe in Method A due to its simplicity. However, they overlook the fact that there must be a time of overlap and transition between old and new processes. During this period, which is required to keep the business running, staff must undertake behavior changes.
However, if they see the new process as “The Enemy”, a foreign object to be expelled at all costs, prepare yourself for passive-resistance.
In extreme cases where the new process cuts jobs, be ready for sabotage. Critical information is withheld as mistakes multiply, causing the overlap to drag on. By the end, if the transition ever takes place, the savings are minimal, the pain maximal.
Once again, Method B is the remedy.
Reason #3 – Future improvements require people
Often, when the new system is implemented, project leaders walk away, thinking their job is done. Unfortunately, the effort has just started.
Ideally, the future should be filled with further improvements. But there’s no such thing as a process which improves itself – it involves people reexamining it to make additional changes. When outsiders are the ones who decide what must be tackled (Method A,) it leaves insiders without the skills to make additional upgrades.
Therefore, the dominant rule is: include people executing the process early and often. But there is an exception.
When the underlying process to be improved is short and simple, like boiling an egg, Method A works. However, with a complex process which cannot easily be automated, like making a soufflé, only Method B succeeds.
Sometimes, leaders create problems for themselves by arguing that they have complex processes, but they are staffed by “stupid” people. Craving Method A, they say “employees cannot be trusted” because they either “won’t take ownership” or “lack the skills”.
This is a grave mistake. Often, from the heights of the executive suite, every process looks simple. If your company has little history of process management, it’s safe to assume there is hidden complexity, and therefore a high risk involved. You must use Method B, giving employees the tools and expertise needed. This includes team-building activities so that together, they can function far better than they can working separately. This is why a team of “stupid” employees can outperform smart individuals acting separately.
Including employees is more challenging in the short term, but it hews far closer to reality. In most cases, it’s the best approach to implement the lasting change your organization needs.
Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. Missed a column? To receive a free download with articles from 2010-2016, send email to