Becoming A Blame-free Organization
Gerri King, Ph.D.
Removing blame from a company’s environment results in an increase in productivity and collaboration.
What’s Wrong with “Blame?”
If it works, it’s a short-term solution without positive long-term effects.
Blame often models exactly those behaviors and values we’d like employees to avoid.
Blame is a form of punishment and tends to create followers, not leaders, because it rarely allows for feedback.
Blame may be a “last ditch” effort by desperate supervisors or colleagues and, thus, not a thoughtful act.
It doesn’t really matter who is to blame. What matters is that what isn’t working gets fixed.
Consider this perspective: Would you rather have an employee change her or his behavior, become more motivated, or make fewer mistakes -- because she or he thinks it’s the right thing to do? or because she or he simply wants to avoid being blamed?
Here's another perspective: Do we believe that people get up in the morning saying, “I think I’ll do a poor job today,” or “With luck, no one will like me,” or “How can I make sure that my boss and colleagues don’t trust me?”
Sound ridiculous? Indeed, it is. But when we lay blame, we're giving the message that the employee knew what was right but chose to do it wrong.
In fact, the reasons employees don’t do what they’re supposed to do are:
They don’t clearly know what is expected of them.
They don’t know how to do it.
They don’t why they should do it.
They think your way may not work or that their way will work better.
They realize that something else is more important.
They anticipate future, negative consequences.
They have personal problems or limitations.
They lack the proper training.
No one could do it.
Any of the above deserves attention and requires some responsible action on everyone’s part, but instead of giving the issue attention, we often resort to critizing and blaming, which is a form of punishment that rarely works.
And criticizing and blaming are forms of revenge – which is definitely not a practice we should model.
Punishment may change behavior -- if people care about the consequences -- but is very unlikely that it will change their values, which is what you really want to happen, because if they change a value, there's a very good chance that they'll integrate it into their decision-making, and into their behavior.
Unfortunately, values change slowly, and only when people have sufficient information that sways them and/or they are confident that they can manage the change, so it's a long-term educational process.
In a blame-free environment, there is a commitment to work things out, so good communication is really the key. You may ask yourself "But how can I find the time to do all this communicating with everyone?" What you should really be thinking, is that if I take the time now, it will save me an enormous amount of time in the future. Talking about it now, figuring it out now, giving your employees the tools they need now, means that they will feel better, try harder to change their values, and they'll be making decisions from now on that ultimately benefit the company!
Blame festers in an authoritative environment. Yet, even with the best of intentions, supervisors and executives walk a fine line. Whenever anyone influences or exerts control over someone’s life, there is a power differential, which can be unintentionally exploited. When we use power, we use force, and even with gentle force, we can expect three possible reactions: fight, flight, or submission. None of those encourages an equitable relationship. Nor do they foster leadership.
More importantly, employees should not be afraid. Fear rarely motivates, and it promotes secrecy. Even in the most equitable companies, it’s hard to eliminate intimidation. Though people may be encouraged to own up to their mistakes, supervisors play a dual role: they are supposed to help solve problems, yet they evaluate performance. If employees go to a supervisor more than once with the same issue, it may show up negatively on their performance evaluations. If their performance reviews are not primarily about the future, (i.e. what more training do you need or how can we help you grow?), then there is every reason to be less than forthcoming.
So -- there is no doubt that creating a blame and punitive-free environment is a challenge, but I'm convinced that is definitely worth the investment in time, training, and discussion. It’s important to remember that a work place without blame is not an environment without expectations, nor is it chaotic. In fact, it requires increased clarification, articulation, and follow-up, all preferable approaches that are usually overlooked or ignored in a punitive atmosphere.
The outcomes of a truly blame-free environment can be quite extraordinary. If negatively-delivered criticism is removed, and a trusting, character-building, supportive environment is created - where everyone involved takes responsibility for what went wrong - long-lasting behavioral changes are generated from within. Rather than continuing to respond to external rewards and punishments, employees internalize what they need to do, and identify expectations for themselves. When those expectations are not met, or mistakes are made, people are much more willing to acknowledge the part they played and take responsibility for rectifying the situation.
Let Trust be your guiding principle.
Gerri King, Ph.D., president of Concord NH-based Human Dynamics Associates, is a social psychologist, organizational consultant and author of the “Duh! Book of Management and Supervision: Dispelling Common Leadership Myths. She can be reached through www.gerriking.com