Transcending the Blaming Culture

Many organizations have a blaming culture. A blaming culture is where blaming is a common occurrence. Blaming behaviors include pointing the finger, complaining, criticizing, and making excuses. In a blaming culture time and energy are spent proving someone else is wrong, proving that one’s self is not wrong, evading accountability and responsibility, avoiding honest communication and accumulating data for proof of blame or innocence. The tendency to blame stifles communication. It destroys trust and creates stress. Blaming creates an environment of fear. As the world renown quality expert, W Edward’s Deming said, we need to drive out all fear for organizations to work effectively. In order to drive out fear we need to drive out blaming.

Blame is an illusion. It is a distortion of reality. Organizational expert Peter Senge wrote in his landmark book The Fifth Discipline: “There is no blame.” Most problems in organizations are systemic. They are rooted in processes and systemic structure. Deming claimed that 94 % of all problems were systemic and he attributed them to common causes. If most problems are systemic in their origin, then why do we spend so much time blaming individuals and groups?

First, most of us do not realize how much blaming is going on or that we are doing it. It becomes a way of life. Try monitoring your thoughts for an hour at work. How many times do you find yourself complaining about someone or something, defending your actions, or noting the faults of others?

The second problem is that we think that whoever is standing closest to a problem must be to blame for it. We are taken in by the illusion that there are simple, linear cause and effect relationships. An example of this kind of thinking comes from a client of mine from several years ago. A supervisor was upset with his people because the customer had sent back product that did not meet the customer’s specifications. He blamed his workers.

He was sure the problem was their carelessness and poor work habits. His solution was to complain and criticize to them. This is a common occurrence in many organizations. I asked him a few questions:
· Were his people aware of the customer’s specifications?
· Did they know how to set up their process in order to meet those specs?
· What were their inspection procedures?
· Were they applied appropriately to this shipment?
· Were all workers clear about their specific jobs and work expectations?
· Did all workers have the skills needed to produce the level of quality required?
· Was the equipment capable of producing the quality needed?
· Was there consistency in how each job was performed?

Most of these questions could not be answered well. There was little clarity and consistency in this system, so results tended to be inconsistent. We cannot blame the people who work for us for poor quality when we have not taken the time to create a structure for success. The supervisor was accountable for the returned parts and so was his manager. It became their job to respond (be responsible), to make appropriate changes that would ensure future shipments would be right.

As leaders we cannot make success happen. What we can do is understand what needs to happen and remove the barriers to success. We can look at structure, leadership style, relationships, and our view of the world and ask ourselves: “Is this working for us or against us?” I can almost guarantee you that the blaming given by that supervisor was not working for him. It created resentment and disrespect.

The illusion we create is that somehow blaming and complaining will make things better. Once we have blamed someone we feel compelled to “prove” it. We spend time and efforts building a case, amassing data, and defending our position. On the flip side, if we are blamed we spend time defending and justifying ourselves. Imagine an organization full of people blaming, complaining, justifying, defending, and building cases against others. When would the work get done?

If blaming is so futile, how can we avoid the blame game? Leaders must make a commitment not to blame or complain. Do your complaining to a trusted friend who is not your employee. Vent it and get over it. See problems as challenges to be overcome, not as opportunities to blame people.

Look at all possible sides of an issue. Ask good questions similar to ones asked of the supervisor. Be willing to look at yourself and see how you are contributing to the current situation. How does your way of being affect others? Have you taken the time to create positive relationships with the people involved? Are you aware of their needs, concerns, and issues? Are you responsive to their needs? Have you helped them to create a structure that helps them succeed? Have you helped people get clarity on their mission, role, and the expected standards? Are you walking your talk? Do you give people honest feedback on their performance? Do you act quickly to correct problems? Do you listen to the people around you? If you are not doing these things, what stops you? (And don’t blame someone else.)

As a leader, your example teaches others how to act. The leader who is accountable and takes responsibility teaches her people to do the same. The leader who blames, undermines her own authority and teaches people that they are not responsible. When we refuse to blame and choose to be accountable and responsible, we begin to discover our power. Focusing on what we can control–our thoughts, behaviors, and actions–makes us powerful. Seeing that, small changes in how we relate to others, what we choose to believe about others, and opening ourselves to actually hearing what others have to say can create powerful results.

A leader’s ability to make small changes within will influence those around him. His new way of being becomes a new way of doing. Others see the results and begin to make their own changes. Every leader is a teacher. Anyone can make the decision to be accountable and responsible, to treat others with care and respect, and to communicate honestly. Waiting for others to change, including those in higher positions, is an excuse. True leaders are people who initiate new ways of being. Culture change begins with one leader who has the will and is willing. Is that person you?