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Everyone’s a Critic: What to Do When Employees Blame You

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I recently had an advisor call about a problem employee. It seems his executive assistant frequently doesn’t do what he asks her to, often deliberately. His biggest issue was that he’d repeatedly asked her not to load him up with back-to-back client appointments (like many advisors, he needs time to clear his mind and review the next client’s file), but she continues to do it anyway.

When he asked her why she wasn’t doing as he asked, she responded that if his work habits were better organized, he could handle more appointments. (I should also mention that her compensation structure is based on how many client appointments he had, which partly contributed to the problem.)

(Related: Set Up to Fail: Bosses Create Problem Employees More Often Than You Think)

I’ve found situations like this are all too common in independent advisory businesses. I think that’s partly because most owner-advisors don’t have much or any management training, but I’ve also found that most owners want their firm’s culture to be friendly and collegial. Consequently, they often treat their employees as equals.

While I personally understand this sentiment, I’ve also learned that every business needs a leader. Management by committee just doesn’t work. As a rule of thumb, I tell my clients that it’s okay to treat your employees as partners, just don’t expect them to be your partners yet.

For one thing, employee-employer relationships are complicated. Mutual respect, good communication, openness and working as a team are all very important to the success of a small business. Yet, as I said, every business needs a leader: someone to make key decisions, manage the staff and oversee their work.

In general, this leads to a productive and successful working environment, but sometimes, employees or owners get confused about their roles. When that happens, problems can arise, and sometimes they are big enough to affect the success of the business. Here are some the biggest problems that I see and what you can do about them.

The owner becoming too friendly. Again, there’s nothing wrong (and many things right) with owners treating their employees as friends. Up to a point. To build and run a successful advisory firm, owners need to get good information from their employees about what’s working and what isn’t, what problems they are facing, and what ideas they have for doing things better. However, it’s also important that everyone remember who’s making the final decision. While friendly disagreement can be healthy, it’s important that everyone remember who bears responsibility for the success or failure of the business.

Employees not taking responsibility. While most employees that I’ve come across are mature enough to take responsibility for their mistakes or shortcomings, some people aren’t. Quite often, these employees try to blame someone else, and often, it’s the firm owner. That’s what the employee in the example above was doing. With their desire to be good, friendly bosses, it’s not uncommon for firm owners to have a problem responding to these attacks.

While it’s important for firm owners to take responsibility for their own mistakes (which I’ll address next), in these situations I counsel my clients to keep the focus of the conversation on the employee when warranted. Usually you can do this by responding with a question that essentially asks what they are doing to solve the problem, to help you be more focused, to get more training or even to be worth more pay.

Firm owners not honestly assessing their own shortcomings and failures. When an employee tries to blame you (or someone else) for a problem is not the time for self-reflection; it’s the time for reminding them about teamwork. However, when an employee does criticize an owner’s behavior, it may warrant some reflection at a later time. While it’s important not to take employee (or any other) criticism to heart, it is important to look at it for what it is. Is it a valid criticism of your behavior? If so, how much of an effect does it have on the success of the firm?

Leaders are never perfect, but the good ones know both their strengths and weaknesses, and take steps to take advantage of the former and minimize the latter. When you do get some criticism, don’t take it to heart, but do objectively as possible think about how accurate it is and whether you need to do anything about it. 

Remember: As a leader, it’s important to take responsibility for your own mistakes and failures. If you don’t, you’ll lose the respect of your employees and morale will plummet.

— Read The Face in the Mirror: Admitting (and Overcoming) Advisor Fears on ThinkAdvisor.


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