The Witches and The Witch Hunters

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There is a Castle I visited in Riegersburg, Austria that is devoted to women and witches. Built on top of a dormant volcano back in the medieval ages, this picturesque fortress stands tall above the village around it, to tell the story of its past owner, a strong baroness who went out of her way to preserve her legacy. It also holds a story of her maid who met her less fortunate fate when she was killed as a witch during the notorious witch hunt of medieval ages which culminated in the Western Europe of the 17th century. Named a “Flower Witch” and blamed for all kinds of poor weather conditions, this woman was given no chance for a proper investigation or a fair hearing.  A human life sacrificed for the society’s disease, in the grand scheme of things, she became only one of possibly millions of victims of this misguided process. The process aimed at hunting down the otherwise-minded individuals (of both genders) for irrational reasons, with little interest in finding any factual evidence of their fault.

Witch hunt was the way for the governments and the clergy to deal with larger scale societal issues through pinpointing an easy target instead of identifying the underlying causes of the problems at hand. An out of control persecution and the subsequent execution of the “witches” without the defense or trial is pretty much obsolete in most of the world.  But the mentality still widely exists.  We see examples of it all the time in mainstream Media vilifying certain groups due to their religious, ethnic or ideological differences.

A Modern Day Witch Hunt

Minus the fanfares and the flames of the inquisition, the mentality of scapegoating and general fault-finding are very common in modern workplaces as well. In a haphazard fire-fighting mode, very similar to panicky misguided methods of their faraway predecessors today’s managers often run around looking for an answer to a workplace issue. When they cannot explain why the phenomena occurred, don’t have the time, or wish to avoid publicising the true reasons, they find someone to assign blame to. This way the management gets to plop a bandage onto the problem and move on to the next item on their busy agendas.

What this method does, it allows organizations or groups within them to avoid taking responsibility for a failure or the lack of the planned success and allows to assign the blame to a smaller group or a specific individual as a proposed solution. Pointing a finger seems to be the easiest way out. But it does not provide any real solutions. Instead of doing that, we should be focusing on identifying the underlying issues behind the symptoms we see. A Root Cause Analysis should be conducted, with the help of one of the tested methods from Quality Management. The process doesn’t have to be too fancy or too complicated, at least not for every investigation. Such method as 5 Why’s could be of help. By simply asking “why” type of questions at least 5 times to dig deeper and deeper into the problem statement you gain a better understanding of what is causing the problem until you get to the bottom of it.

The Vital Few and the Trivial Many  

When you conduct your investigation properly, most of the time you find that the root cause goes beyond the superficial “human error”. Most of the problems are actually caused by the system itself which one way or another allowed for the things to fall through the cracks. Quality Management gurus that I have studied warn us that the vast majority of organizational problems are system problems, while only a few remaining ones can be assigned to human errors. The numbers vary from 80/20 to 95/5 percent.

So if at least 80% of our problems are related to the system issues it means that we don’t solve them by announcing to the world that the culprit was fired and not even by ostracising the scapegoat internally. System problems are resolved by improving the very processes our system is comprised of.  After all, the witch hunting practices of the past did not eliminate any of the societal issues. They won’t solve organizational problems either.

And in the end of the day, if your investigation pointed out that people are at fault, the undesirable actions and behavior of certain individuals within the organization may still be an indicator of a larger scale organizational problem.

Benefits of the Root Cause Analysis

Conducting effective root cause investigations is not easy, and it’s not easy to maintain a true no-blame environment which still fosters accountability for one’s actions and inaction. But it is worth it, as the benefits it yields are countless. Here are only some of them:

  • The obvious benefit – it improves organizational processes and, consequently, the quality of the product or service you provide;
  • Prevents issues from recurring in the future;
  • Affects customer and public perception of your organization even after a failure, as long as you own up to what’s happened;
  • Provides valuable knowledge from the lessons learned, which can be shared with the rest of the team including any future team members;

Aside from the fact that time spent today is money saved in the future, building a no-blame environment will bring massive intangible benefits as well. With the improved employee morale, instead of the witches and the witch hunters, you will end up with the team of highly effective individuals, who look for facts, not fault and can be always relied on for goal-oriented problem-solving.

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  1. This article is quite true. I have been a victim of “witch hunt” myself in an office environment. Some newly promoted supervisor felt that she had to “prove herself.” So I was deemed below standard by her right from the start and that false image stuck with me. Yes I was some kind of “witch.”

    1. True indeed. I witnessed something similar many years ago when I had my intership. Our supervisor somehow “picked” one of the employees and literally was picking on him non-stop. Still can’t forget that terrible work environment

    2. It’s unfortunate Alex that a Supervisor used her authority in such a poor and unethical manner. That being said, the true unfortunate aspect of her actions is the way it negatively affected your work environment and potentially your career. Here’s hoping that she did you a favor by opening up new career opportunities for you to prosper elsewhere. Her shortsighted actions may have yielded a quick result at your expense but if she continued those same underhanded actions long term her demise would be inevitable.

  2. What a relevant topic, Natella. As unpleasant as the subject of witch hunt is, I feel you have done the analysis and identified it’s very root cause here.

  3. Recently my company went through the process of ISO 9001:2015 Certification. In my opinion, one of the most important features that has been introduced with the ISO Quality Management System is the Corrective Action Process used to identify non-conformities and prevent repeat incidents. As Natella has identified in her post there are many benefits that follow as a result of investing the time required to complete a thorough Root Cause Analysis as part of the Corrective Action Process. The end result is a high quality operation that promotes unity among the internal team and added value for the customer.

    1. Jason the language you are speaking is like music to my ears :). I am so glad you are starting your ISO 9000 certification journey on the right foot with teaching your team about the value of CAR and Root Cause Analysis. Good luck to your team with the Continual improvement of your processes.

  4. Hi Lida and Jason: Thank you for your comments and your interest in my case. It was at an awkward time in my career that this happened as I was completing my time in this organization. The supervisor kept marking me down and she ignored any of my achievements. There seemed to be nothing that I could do right. Complaining about her did nothing. Eventually she was moved to another section, but the dye was cast. Unfortunately I found it necessary to leave this organization which I had been with for 24 years and find a new career in another organization. My current work place has been much better, but I do admit that I do have the bad memories of what happened in a career I had put so much heart and soul into.

    1. Thank you so much, everyone, for your interest in this topic and for sharing your comments here. Alex, I appreciate you taking the time to explain to all of us what happened in your work environment which was turned into some kind of “witch hunt” by an unscrupulous supervisor. So glad to hear you are much happier in your current career.

  5. Very informative and useful post, Natella. As usual, you touched on and analyzed very important topics. Such tricks as “witch hunt”, scapegoating in a workplace are widely used by incompetent and short-sighted managers on their employees instead of looking deeper into the existing problems and find out why they are happening. In other word use Root Cause Analysis.