It’s (Mostly) The System Not The Person


A common theme running through many recent articles, blog posts, and comments on issues of organizational performance is that managers/leaders are the problem: they are out of touch, they are arrogant and smug, they are selfish, and that they lack empathy or compassion. The gist being people in positions of power or authority should know better, be better.

I agree with Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, authors of the piece “Why Do So Many Managers Forget They’re Human Beings?” in Harvard Business Review, that “As human beings, we are all driven by basic needs for meaning, happiness, human connectedness, and a desire to contribute positively to others.”[1] This is so for the line-worker and the executive. I do not believe that anyone comes to work with the intent to make life miserable for another. But it happens. Why?

Religions have been telling us to “Be personal,” “Be self-aware,” “Be selfless,” “Be compassionate,” for ages. That is wise guidance for leaders and common man alike. But, as Dr. Deming asked, “By what method?” Without method that guidance is no different than exhorting a worker to “think quality,” “work hard,” “zero defects,” “get it right first time.”

Method, or process, or system, is essential in supporting our inner desire to live right. Organizations have organically evolved systems that directly conflict with and obstruct this desire. They’re so elaborate that even those supposedly in charge are trapped by it.[2] This isn’t intentional, it happens. It is the result of everyone doing their best without constancy of purpose. I now realize that no one in the system sees the system, and everyone is confused by and frustrated with it. What can we do?

We can all work to understand the system and share that with one another. Leaders can authorize that. However, we all are responsible for doing it. With shared understanding we can all work to redesign our system of work to humanize it. Again, leaders can authorize that, but we are all responsible for doing it. It is easy and comforting to divide ourselves into “us” and “them” and lay responsibility and fault on “them”. We’ve tried that; it hasn’t worked. Could we try something different?

It’s not just the managers who forget they’re human. We all do.

[1] Hougaard, Rasmus and Jacqueline Carter. “Why Do So Many Managers Forget They’re Human Beings?” Retrieved on 2018.01.30 from

[2] Consider Eric Ries’s experience from The Startup Way: “Many managers I’ve met and worked with know they’re being asked to do the wrong thing, but they continue to do it anyway because they feel trapped in a system of incentives that makes it impossible to do anything else.”


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