The first-shift guys tell you they work together as a team. They are the best shift in every way. And they always clean up and set up for second shift. But they tell you third shift leaves them a mess. When they come in raring to go to work and be the best, there is trash in the aisles, no material for them to work with. They spend the first half-hour cleaning up and setting up, and generally doing what those third shift guys should have done.

The second shift guys tell you that they work together as a team. They are the best shift in every way. But don’t get them started on those slackers on first shift. Those guys leave them a mess. There is trash in the aisles, and no material for them to work with. They spend the first half-hour cleaning up and setting up, and so on.

Then you talk to the third shift guys. Guess what? They sound exactly like the first and second shift guys.

What’s up with that?

 The ghost shift

Having seen this pattern repeated time and again in different plants I work with, I wonder if there is a “ghost fourth shift” that creeps in between shifts and undoes all the thoughtful cleanup and setup that the off-going guys (salt of the earth, each and every one of them) had so carefully done.

Here’s a similar example of “bad guys at work.” The sales guys tell you they bust their butts to bring in business, spending time with customers, making dreaded cold calls, handling customer questions and concerns, working after-hours and weekends, etc. When they land a big order, the production guys give them all kinds of excuses why they can’t deliver. Those production guys don’t get it. They have “no sense of urgency.”

The production guys tell you they are the backbone of the company — “if we don’t make, it there is nothing to sell” — and that they bust their butts to make it and get it out the door. “But the sales guys, who have been out playing golf and wining and dining with customers, pop in on Friday afternoon and drop a big order on us and tell us it has to ship on Monday. So we are supposed to crew for overtime on Saturday and Sunday? Those guys have no respect for us and what we do.”

 Most employees “bring it” to work

Hypothesis: There are just a lot of bad guys out there (and in here).

I do not accept this. I understand bad apples turn up here and there. But most folks in every company want to do their best, and try to pretty much every day. Good data suggest that, assuming reasonably effective leadership from their managers, most employees are engaged, have positive work attitudes, and “bring it” to work.

I learned many years ago as a psychology student that when we observe behavior we “naturally” ascribe cause to it. Without consciously thinking about it, we judge “why he (or I) acted that way.” And there exists a powerful and consistent bias in how we make such judgments of cause.

Say I am in a grocery store. As I approach the checkout lane I see you speaking in a loud voice, demanding that the checkout clerk get her supervisor — NOW. Years of research show unequivocally that I am prone to think that you are a rude and aggressive person. When I observe others acting in a way that is generally negative, I am biased toward an internal, dispositional explanation for their behavior — “that’s just the kind of person they are.”

But it is at least likely in the scenario above, you are a cheerful, friendly person, but having waited in an interminable line (only two were open at a very busy time), and being in a hurry to get to your daughter’s soccer game, just as you got your turn, the checkout clerk put the “closed” sign up and started to walk away. You ask if she will just take a minute and check out your five items. She rolls her eyes and says “it’s my break time.” Your upset behavior might be almost entirely determined by external, situational factors. But I am biased to see you as, well, kind of a jerk. This is called the “fundamental attribution error.” It is powerful and universal.

 Missing critical factors

Viewed from this perspective, the “what’s up with those guys” shift scenarios look a bit different now. Each of the three shifts thought themselves good guys, and they probably are. The sales guys and production guys thought themselves as good guys, and they probably are.

Several well-verified strategies help us escape fundamental attribution error. Perhaps the simplest is just to understand the pervasiveness of the bias, and to always look first and foremost for the situational factors that may be influencing behavior.

If one of the production shifts did fail to clean up, chances are they were fighting fires all shift long, were short-handed, or their behavior was influenced by some other situational

In the sales/operations scenario, maybe the sales forecast sets the bar for the sales guys; if they beat it, they get bonuses. So they strive to sell more than was projected. But plant budgets are built based on the sales forecast; if the bonus-eligible production folks make the projected amount of product and closely control their costs to stay within budget, they get bonuses — otherwise, no.

 See the problem?

If you look for good guys and bad guys you are very likely to miss important external situational factors that cause the groups to be incompatible. Align the sales and production incentive programs, or help the shifts communicate more directly with each other, and watch the magical transformation of bad guys into good guys.

How about “employees who don’t care about safety?” Are they bad guys, or might situational factors be influencing them to cut corners, not wear PPE, etc.? Safety pros might do well to always look for the situational factors that influence safe vs. unsafe acts in the workplace. Do folks praise the careful electrician who followed all the safety rules in making a repair, or the one who swooped in, free-styled a bit, and got us up and running again in a jiffy?

By re-engineering situational factors, we might be able to create the conditions to bring out the “good guy” that exists in most folks at work.