When something bad happens, it seems to be human nature to find something –or someone– to blame it on. A few-hundred years ago, it was easy to find a scapegoat for a bad harvest, mental illness of a loved-one, the sudden death of your goat, a boil on your butt, or a hangnail. This scapegoat was called a witch.
It must have been pretty easy to find someone in any 17th century town that could be easily labelled a witch. It could be someone that didn’t follow societal norms, had mental illness, had a preponderance of warts, or had the dreaded third nipple (these were sometimes called the ‘witches mark‘ as the nipple was supposed to be used by demons to feed).
Today we are so much more knowledgeable about the world. When we have a bad harvest, we generally recognize that weather patterns have a random element. Mental illness is generally considered to be something hereditary, or environmental, and not the result of being cursed. We seek rational and scientific explanations when things go wrong, right?
Not so in politics and business. It’s the Witch Hunt 2.o.
Now, instead of comparing the weight of the accused to a duck, the yard stick of choice is an auditor.
We like to think that auditors are unbiased, truth-seeking individuals right? Well, if your competence is estimated by your ability to find fault in something, I think you are likely to find fault in anything. For comparison, think of a crown prosecutor or district attorney: are they lauded by the number of cases they won, or with the number of cases where justice was done? Yah, when an auditor is asked to find fault, they go for the win too.
A case in point: Toronto Mayor Rob Ford goes after the Toronto Housing Board (TCHC).
Mr. Ford has asked for the resignation of the volunteer TCHC board members citing the auditor’s findings that revealed: “between $4 million and $10 million was wasted on sole-sourced contracts. The report also revealed issues with record-keeping at the agency and found that $200,000 was misspent on luxury chocolates, spa trips and a Christmas party.”
Wow, doesn’t that piss you off? A government agency wasting $10M and spending $200K on chocolate. The nerve! Fire all those evil volunteer board… WITCHES!
But lets scratch the surface by actually reading some of this auditors report:
Significant cost savings are likely possible if the recommendations contained in this report as well as the City Auditor General’s previously issued audit reports are implemented. Procurement at the TCHC is in the range of $200 million. Savings as a result of increased competition could in our view be anywhere from two to five per cent of this amount. Conservatively, cost savings of approximately $4 million to $10 million may be possible. In addition, significant savings are possible as a result of increased coordination of operations between the TCHC and the City.
Wait, 2 to 5%? I’d be willing to bet that any armchair quarterback could look at any organization’s books and find 2-5% that could have been saved. Would you call for the leadership’s resignation? If they took such liberties with $4-10M headline, I am starting to wonder how much was spent on chocolate…
What happened next? The volunteer, unpaid, counsellors were dismissed and replaced by a close friend of Rob Ford (he lead his transition team) who is going to receive an undisclosed paycheck! Wha?
The point of this post is not to show that Rob Ford is reading from a well-worn copy of ‘Dictatorship for Dummies!’, but how we as citizens and employees so often get duped by the same refrain: “The system is broken because of evil corrupt people that go to work every day trying to screw us!” Nobody seems willing to look at all the people they know, and at themselves, and realize that the vast majority of people don’t think this way (Rob Ford could perhaps be an exception here).
Lets look at some of the drawbacks of using the Witch Hunt 2.0 mentality when trying to improve organizational performance:
- Successful organizations are based on trust, you start with a serious trust deficit if you treat the organization as they enemy
- Fear is a poor motivator, when was the last time you heard of a team winning a championship because of fear?
- One of your first moves is usually to oust a bunch of people who have organizational knowledge of the very problems you are trying to fix
- A focus on bad people ignores a much more prevalent problem: bad systems