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'Passing the Blame Torch' Is a CEO Practice That Should Die

Nov. 30, 2023
A culture of teamwork, not competition, breeds better performance.

I once worked for a CEO that relished in his subordinates competing with each other. Not only that, he would encourage it. He would often pit one against another to see who would come out on top.

Many times, he would direct me to confront one of my peers over something he thought they should or shouldn’t be doing. And he would also direct my peers to do the same thing to me. As you can imagine, these confrontations often turned out badly. For one, they didn’t think I, as a peer, had any business sticking my nose in their business. They were right, even if the CEO directed me to do it. To complicate matters, I wasn’t supposed to tell them the CEO directed me to do it. How crazy is that?

When I stuck my nose in their business, do you think that improved performance? Absolutely not. It created tension, divisiveness and resentment between us.

Because of the atmosphere of competition between us, I was always on guard for the next attack. We would all enter the “Coliseum” (also known as the conference room) for business review meetings ready to fight like gladiators. I would spend endless hours before the meeting trying to figure out who would attack me and who I should attack to deflect attention away from me. I know the rest of my peers did the same thing. This resulted in everyone blaming everyone else for what didn’t go right. Sales would attack manufacturing for missed shipments. Manufacturing would attack sales for poor forecasting. On and on it went. The blame torch would be passed from one person to the next until the meeting simply ended. Ended with no resolution to the issues at hand.

On the other end of the spectrum, I once worked for a guy who would hold daily meetings with all his subordinates. He would sit in the center of the room, and we would all sit in our chairs forming a circle around him. That was weird, to say the least. In turn, he would ask each of us if we were “working our to-do lists.” He didn’t ask any detail. He didn’t need any because in his view, he had all the answers and we had none. He only wanted assurance we were working our lists. He didn’t encourage, nor did he want, any interaction between us. When everyone had the “right” answer he would dismiss us. The whole meeting rarely lasted more than 10 minutes.

Because he believed he was “the smartest guy in the room” (as evidenced by the seating arrangements) he didn’t need anything from his subordinates, including collaboration. In fact, he made notepads for everyone that had the words “Don’t say it, write it” on every page. Because of the complete lack of interaction between his subordinates, inter-departmental problems never got solved. Inter-departmental opportunities were not pursued either. It was a circus of the worst kind.

These are extreme examples of a CEO creating situations of competition between subordinates, and another one that didn’t want any interaction among them at all. Both approaches are wrong.

Creating, or even tolerating, competition among subordinates is a popular CEO myth. Let me remind you that the real, and only, competition is out there, in the marketplace. The only competition a CEO should create is with, well, the competition.

Competition among your subordinates wastes time and energy that should be used to fight the real enemy out there. Competition among your subordinates creates resentment. It destroys teamwork. It conceals true opportunities that could be found in a collaborative environment.

Don’t get me wrong. There will always be tension and disagreement among your subordinates. You couldn’t eliminate that if you wanted to. This is especially true between manufacturing and sales. Quality and manufacturing will always have disagreements. Marketing and sales won’t always agree. But the goal is to work together to iron out problems and uncover opportunities in a collaborative fashion.  As the CEO, only you can set the stage for that collaboration to take place. But it is not your job to solve all their inter-departmental issues. That is their job. It is your job to foster teamwork and cooperation.You can only do this by setting an example.

You can only do this by insisting teamwork is the order of the day, not competition.

Steven L. Blue is President & CEO of Miller Ingenuity. He teaches executives, leaders, entrepreneurs, and anyone seeking to learn how to maximize their company’s growth through fostering company culture and innovation. He serves as CEO-in-Residence at Winona State University.


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