Confusing Environment and People Problems

If you have not yet read Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath, put it on your “must read” list. In it, the Heaths refer to a study done by Brian Wansink, who runs the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. In the study and his book, Mindless Eating, Wansink’s research identified one key factor that affected how much popcorn people ate when they went to a movie. Surprisingly, it had nothing to do with body type, gender, geographic location, or type of movie. All that mattered was the size of the container. Even when they served stale popcorn, the subjects still ate the same amount. So the lesson in the study was that what often looks like a people problem may be a situation problem.

I mention this study because I often see businesses continue to address corporate environment problems as if they are people problems. Let’s take the example of XYZ Company. XYZ appears to have several people that are not getting things done on time. It is common for goals not to be met and for certain individuals to regularly miss deadlines. However, the real problem is the environment the CEO created. The CEO has certain employees that he has decided do not need to be held accountable for their performance. These are either family members or friends of senior management. This kind of decision always creates a corporate environment problem. It causes other people to have to do the work for these “preferred” people that any other company would have fired a long time ago. Not firing them has the following effects on the organization:

  • Others need to do their work or fix their mistakes, causing their own work to fall behind.
  • Good performers are less motivated to excel.
  • Productivity drops.
  • Morale of the “others” is down.
  • Teamwork decreases.
  • Workplace stress goes up.

So you might argue that we have a people problem. By firing the person that is not doing his or her job, everything is solved. However, the real issue here is environmental. Different rules for different people. Some people are held accountable, and others are not. So the CEO has to decide that he wants to have an environment where the rules are the same for all. By changing the environment, the problems get fixed, and it is no longer personal.

Howard Shore is a business growth expert that works with companies that want to maximize their growth potential by improving strategy, enhancing their knowledge, and improving motivation. To learn more about him or his firm please contact Howard Shore at 305.722.7213 or