By Carole Wehn
It’s not our fault the job is on hold. The supplier sent the wrong parts.
It’s not my fault the project wasn’t completed in time. Accounting never gave me the budget figures.
I would have closed the sale, but the competitor came in with a ridiculously low bid.
These are all examples of the blame culture at work. In each case, productivity slowed because someone wasn’t accountable and didn’t ensure that targets were met and goals achieved. Even worse, these examples indicate that employees might have been afraid to step up and take ownership of a problem for fear of confrontation or reprisal.
What Is Blame Culture?
The Oxford Review defines blame culture as “an environment where people or groups/teams of people are frequently singled out, blamed, and criticized, and fault is apportioned out for mistakes and errors.” People are targeted when things go wrong, not the business operations.
Blame culture asks, “who dropped the ball?” instead of “where did our systems and processes fail?” The focus is on the individuals, not the processes. It’s much easier to point fingers at a person or department instead of doing the harder, but the more beneficial, exercise of fixing the root cause, so the problem does not happen again.
Why Are We So Quick to Blame Others?
Blaming others is a contagious behavior! A study reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology showed that being around people who blame others encouraged the subjects to blame others in turn.
One of the study’s authors, Nathaniel Fast, noted,
“The ‘germ’ that spreads is the goal of protecting one’s self-image. When people observe others protecting their egos, it spreads.”
The ego is one of the biggest causes of dysfunction in organizations. When people perceive that their position or status is threatened, they react defensively. And this defensiveness can lead to finger-pointing instead of assumption of responsibility.
Fast observed that people who blame others for their shortfalls learn less and perform worse than peers who own their mistakes. If they won’t own the problem, they won\’t own the solution and won\’t learn from the experience. The individuals, as well as the company, suffer in a blame culture.
However, the study also determined that employees who have a strong sense of self-worth and self-esteem were able to avoid the “germs” of blame contagion. Environments where employees are supported and encouraged, even when they make honest mistakes or take unsuccessful yet thoughtful risks, ward off the blame culture.
The Impact of Blame on Company Culture
Just as children fear mom and dad’s punishment if they admit to wrongdoing, in a blaming environment, employees are afraid of criticism and repercussions if they acknowledge making a mistake at work.
Ramifications may include public humiliation, loss of status and responsibilities—or even poor performance reports and fewer raises. Staff members are then afraid to take risks and try new approaches in the event they are unsuccessful.
Blame cultures, according to Oxford Review, have:
- Higher levels of turnover
- Reduced work engagement and productivity
- Decision escalation, or continually referring to managers for decisions
- Lower levels of organizational performance
- Lower levels of innovation behaviors and creativity
- Reduced levels of job satisfaction
- Reduced levels of responsibility-taking
How Blame Affects Innovation
Innovation is stifled when employees are afraid to try something different. After all, why challenge the status quo or propose new ideas if you are punished when you fail?
In 2018 Gallup interviewed business managers and employees about their experiences with agility at their company. Less than a quarter of US employees strongly agreed with the statement, “My company creates an environment where people can try, fail, and learn from mistakes.”
As Gallup Research Analyst Marco Nink noted, “If three-quarters of your workforce doesn’t feel free to innovate, becoming truly agile is impossible.”
By definition, innovation requires trial and error. Employees need a safe environment that not only encourages intelligent risk-taking but also allows room for failures. Leaders should find ways to celebrate not only the risks that succeeded but those that failed despite thoughtful execution.
How to Eliminate Blame Culture
Leadership and management author Louis Carter outlines five ways to stop a blame culture:
- Spread awareness about the physiological effects of blame and excuses.
People who refuse to take responsibility for their actions and blame others play the victim and increase their stress levels. Blame leads to negativity and feelings of powerlessness, pessimism, and anger.
- Stop blaming yourself and others.
Blaming and making excuses are habits, which need to be broken like any other negative behavior. Check your ego at the door, and work on bolstering your self-esteem.
- Define the “why” as much as the “what.”
Work with your team to eliminate the habitual blaming and create a plan for a culture of accountability. Drive home the disadvantages to both the employee and the organization when problems are faced with finger-pointing. Highlight the benefits of a culture which focuses on learning from mistakes and problems.
- Follow up to ensure accountability.
Create a culture of responsibility where each person is personally accountable and holds others responsible. Check with employees to see whether they are noticing less blaming and more accountability in the workplace.
- Look at yourself.
Change needs to start at the leadership level. Ensure you are exhibiting the proper behaviors of responsibility and accountability. Then, model the behavior you want to see.
Accountability and Responsibility
As a leader, you must step up when a problem or crisis has occurred. Your team is watching. They will take their cues from how you respond. As former Campbell Soup CEO and leadership author Doug Conant notes,
“The best thing you can be is somebody who chooses to take responsibility. Own the issue, hold yourself and others accountable, make a plan to fix it, execute that plan, and move on.”
Conant further notes that taking responsibility as a leader doesn’t mean you don\’t hold people accountable. You do. But instead of spreading blame, he encourages fostering accountability.
When you step up as a leader to own the problem, you will encourage others to work together to resolve the immediate issue and make the necessary process corrections to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen again.
At CultureWise, we refer to this approach as “blameless problem-solving.” It is part of a set of employee behaviors that define our company culture.
Practicing blameless problem-solving is to:
Demonstrate a relentless solution focus, rather than pointing fingers or dwelling on problems. Identify lessons learned and use those lessons to improve ourselves and our processes so we don’t make the same mistake twice. Get smarter with every mistake. Learn from every experience.
“When we practice blameless problem solving, we’re first and foremost focused on solutions. A problem has occurred. The most important steps we can take immediately are to understand the various aspects of the issue, determine what options exist to solve it, choose the best course of action, and get moving on implementing the solution. Notice what’s conspicuously absent in this list. Blame.”
While it’s critical to understand what went wrong when a problem occurs, look at it from the perspective of what process broke down rather than what person dropped the ball. That expands the opportunity for creativity and process improvement.
Spending time looking for someone to blame, or even worse, figuring out how to keep yourself out of the line of fire, takes valuable time away from this process reengineering opportunity.
Need Help Eliminating the Blame Culture?
A blaming environment robs organizations of innovation, employee engagement, and productivity. If you find that your company culture permits finger-pointing to go unchecked and that managers punish employees who make mistakes, it’s time for a culture re-set.
CultureWise can help you define and operationalize the culture you want to see in 4 simple steps:
- Define the behaviors (we call them “Fundamentals”) that drive success in your organization.
- Create and deploy the rituals necessary to teach and practice those behaviors with consistency.
- Engage your workforce for maximum impact.
- Serve daily high-quality teaching content to your team with a powerful mobile app.
- Access to a library of the best Fundamentals culled from our experience, already written for you, and guidance on choosing the ones that fit your company.
- Expert advice on how to create the most appropriate rituals for your organization, based on industry and type of workforce.
- Step-by-step guidance on how to roll the program out effectively to get your team’s full and enthusiastic engagement.
- Access to a massive library of teaching content for every Fundamental, including hundreds of daily QuickTips, teaching points, coaching tips, questions for discussion, videos, and scenario-based lessons.
- Simple, user-friendly tutorials to guide you every step of the way.
- Complete reporting on every aspect of employee engagement in the program.
- Unlimited phone support from highly trained Implementation Specialists.
Enjoy a complimentary subscription to the CultureWise blog, Culture Matters, for the latest insights and news about corporate culture.