I recently read a quote by Thich Nhat Hanh that resonated with me. He said, “When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, more water or less sun. You never blame the lettuce.”

This quote appeals to the gardener in me. When a tomato plant is not doing well, you look at the underlying conditions that may cause it to fail. You measure the amount of water in the soil or evaluate the nutrients you are giving to the plant. There is almost always an underlying issue. This lesson could also serve in the workplace. 

Too often, people who would otherwise be successful at work are failing. They are smart, capable and care about the work they’re doing. And yet, something isn’t coming together. 

As a manager, you may look at a troubled employee and feel frustration. You may blame them for what you perceive as goofing off or not caring. That is rarely the solution. If you’re willing to listen, there is almost always something else going on. It is important to enter these conversations with care and with an open mind. Getting real feedback involves trust. 

If an employee lets you in, they will share specific details often within our control as leaders. It’s possible that the person does not feel they have the autonomy needed to make decisions. Or they do not know the overall company vision and goals. 

They may have difficulty understanding how their work fits into the larger picture. It could be that the employee feels they have competing concerns that are difficult to prioritize. Perhaps the employee struggles with change. Or, maybe they don’t feel that their strengths are valued at work.

Whatever the reason, few people want to get up each day and feel useless at work. Not everyone is ambitious or highly career-oriented, but most people do have some sense of pride in what they do. If you have a problem employee, it can be easy to blame them. 

Many managers are happy to put someone on the company off-ramp at the first sign of problems. But it is very often a mistake. Talk to any human resources manager. They will share how often they see managers get rid of good people because they cannot look in the mirror. 

It could be argued that finding a new employee is significantly more work than successfully retaining an existing one. Every employee has needs that must be met for them to perform well. Whether it’s a current employee or one you’ll hire in the future, don’t blame the lettuce.

Angela Copeland is a career expert and founder of Copeland Coaching. copelandcoaching.com