Performing and Failing or Failing to Perform: Does Your Culture Have a Preference?

If you read my posts at all it won’t take you long to notice that I have a bias towards holding management to a higher standard than other employees in any organization. The reason behind the bias stems mainly from my belief in the efficacy of this daunting quote from Luke 12:48 in the Christian Bible:


“For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”


To this notion my response has always been, “Yeah buddy!” For the 24 years I have served as a coach I have not deviated from this perspective. Without regard to religious preference it bears noting that in any system where there is an imbalance of power more must be expected of those whom the imbalance favors or there will be ethical as well as performance issues to deal with.

Much has been written and will continue to be about the wisdom of encouraging employees, managers too, to take risks in order to bring about innovations.  Steve Denning recently offered his thoughts on “two sided accountability” as one means to developing a risk encouraging environment, “The consequence of failed performance should be personal development, new perspective, improved judgment, skill enhancement, and general all-around learning…” as part of his ‘Reinventing Management’ series. However, as you may have noticed yourself, more often than not our systems of reward also include negative reward (punishment) and many employees, managers included, have found it safer to fail to perform rather than perform and risk failing. “In Taking Risks in Tough Times” author/consultant Ron Ashkenas offers thoughts from his direct experience working with managers who, “were anxious about the consequences of failure and felt it more prudent to continue doing what they had always done.”

The flip side of the risk coin is of course risk aversion, which too frequently is modeled in our organizations and also manages to discourage performing and failing, especially where it appears the former is punished and the latter  rewarded. Very recently I was involved in two situations where I did my best rewrite this equation in favor of risk, or at least away from inaction, the failure to perform.

In one instance I had been asked by the CEO of a good sized manufacturing enterprise to investigate friction among members two of his senior team that seemed to be spilling over into the rest of the organization. Following a period of research in which I investigated the willingness of the parties involved to reach resolution I recommend that both be dismissed since neither was willing to admit their responsibility for the friction. That was the easy part. What was more difficult for my client to accept was my further recommendation that the senior VP to whom both reported also be dismissed. The CEO’s comment upon hearing my recommendation was, “Why, he didn’t do anything?” My response was that the VP’s failure to do anything was exactly the reason behind my recommendation for dismissal. In my view, had the VP acted in accordance with his accountability earlier it may not have been necessary to lose the services of two technically competent but challenging senior people.

The second situation remains to be resolved but it is similar in nature, senior people, highly compensated people, have been involved in a situation that is costing their company considerable revenue and a responsible party has been hard to find. One thing is certain, the sins involved are more those of omission than commission.

Can we all agree that so long as we encourage cultures where “no good deed goes unpunished” ¹ it is unlikely that we are going to produce working environments where innovation will come naturally.

        ¹ Often attributed to Clare Booth Luce, among others


At the same time, until our leaders become resolute about not tolerating the failure to perform, no matter what the level but particularly among those “to whom much is given”, it is unlikely that employees will take seriously any promise of a desire for increased engagement or “employees are our greatest asset.”


  • What’s it like where you work? Are employees more likely to get punished for failing or rewarded to playing it safe?


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