Organizations of any size, but particularly large bureaucratic institutions, can fall prey to a cultural norm I call FLEE.

The Fault Lies Elsewhere Excuse is so prevalent that we almost don’t notice it. It occurs when a user or customer has a problem or complaint. The first person contacted acknowledges that there is a problem and then proceeds to explain to the stakeholder how the Fault Lies Elsewhere.

  • Oh, you can’t access your account on-line? Well we have been having problems with our service provider and it is possible that in the last upgrade your account was accidentally deleted. We have had a few of those instances.
  • You haven’t received the shoes you ordered? Our shipping and receiving department is short staffed. The shoes may be in the warehouse but I have no way of checking. Call back later in the week.
  • You were told that your problem would be resolved by now? Who did you talk to? I don’t know why they would say that. They don’t have the authority to give you a date.
  • Your new appliance still hasn’t been delivered? We have no control over our delivery people. They are supposed to deliver between 9 and 5 the next day. They should be there tomorrow. Oh, you can’t take another day off work? I’ll give you a number to call and complain.
  • You received a letter telling you to pick up your documents today? Who signed the letter? She’s away on a course for the rest of the week and I have no idea where she would have put them.
  • Ms. Bank hasn’t returned your call? Try sending an email. Oh she hasn’t replied to the last seven you sent? Gee – that’s strange. But she’s on holiday now and no one else can help you.
  • Do we have this item in a size twelve? I don’t think so.
  • The vending machine in the lobby took your money and won’t dispense the product? That has nothing to do with us. Try calling the vending people and no, I don’t know their number.
  • Your box of eight only contained seven? Oh you should have checked that before you left the store. Sometimes people open the box and take one. Or one was put on display. The clerk should have taken it off the shelf. You will have to call customer service, scan them the receipt and I think they will mail you one – or maybe you have to come in again.
  • You want direction to the board room? I think it is on the third floor.

In each of these cases the right answer should have been: I will take care of that for you (or I will make sure you have access to the person who can).

We all know that stuff happens. There is always an excuse, sometimes even a good reason. And sometimes it really isn’t our problem (like the vending machine example). But the end user just wants the problem fixed. They don’t want to sympathize with your problems. They don’t want to discuss your co-workers’ bad behaviour. They just want the issue resolved.

This problem is exacerbated when companies are going through change (confusion is a side effect) or when the budget is tight (trying to do the same thing with fewer resources). That sounds like very much like the situation yesterday, today and probably tomorrow.

Sometimes FLEE is a reflection of the person’s frustration. They recognize that things are not working well but they don’t want the end user to blame them personally. So they try to empathize. And they try to diffuse. What they don’t do is solve the problem.

No one wants to take the blame for something beyond their control. That is understandable. But whether you own the company or are an employee – you represent the company. If something has gone wrong, if a problem exists, if someone’s expectations aren’t being met, every employee needs to be proactive in finding a solution. That’s being responsible. Stepping up and taking ownership of an issue – even one that was caused by someone else’s mistake – makes you look good. No one will ever blame you for solving their problem.


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