Blame culture kills creativity and morale. For an organization that thrives on innovation and mutual learning, embrace a no blame culture - we'll explain how.
Mistakes happen; it's inevitable. We're all just humans trying to make informed decisions, and we don't always get it right. And because it's impossible to avoid mistakes entirely, how we respond to mistakes is often the defining factor in whether a situation resolves - or spirals.
In organizations, though, how we respond to such issues isn't always up to us. Often, it's dictated by the culture - whether there is a destructive culture of blame, or whether there is a drive to learn from mistakes in a proactive, no blame culture.
In short, if we notice that there is a pattern of vindictiveness in our organization, with individuals scapegoated in order to save the company's face, we are going to behave differently than if we feel that there is a transparent, open no blame culture. Once again, we're only human. If we feel threatened, self-preservation will be top-of-mind.
Needless to say, however, this isn't functional or optimal. We can achieve more if we work collaboratively, openly, in an environment where employees are not influenced by fear.
So, let's dissect the anatomy of blame culture, what makes it tick, and then consider how we can build back up with a no blame culture in its place.
First up, let’s get square on what we mean by a blame culture. If an organization has a culture of blame, this ultimately means that there is more interest in identifying who caused an error rather than what can be done to solve it.
Blame cultures tend to be punitive rather than productive. People are afraid that, if they make a mistake, there will be harsh consequences - from reputational damage, to losing advancement opportunities, right up to getting fired. Unsurprisingly, this means that employees in a blame culture will be more focused on self-preservation than mutual development.
In this environment, consequences may also trickle down until they stop at the people least able to defend themselves. Rather than people in leadership positions accepting accountability, they may blame the way plans have been executed by more junior staff.
As a result, the people who have less authority in the organization end up taking the fall, and nobody at the top gets challenged.
There are a startling number of reasons why a festering, underlying culture of blame is a bad thing for an organization that actually wants to get things done effectively. But some of the most detrimental impacts are as follows:
Too busy passing the buck? In a culture of blame, finger-pointing often gets in the way of productive conversations about how to fix the problems at hand. You might not even be able to agree on the definition or scope of the problem - people will be too invested in trying to minimize their role in what happened or what needs to happen.
Team members are also less likely to report errors or mistakes that they notice, fearing that they might be be blamed. This can lead to catastrophic consequences down the line, with small errors remaining unaddressed until they cause an obvious disruption.
In a functional, healthy team, you don’t fear repercussions for dissenting. You know you can speak up, ask questions, or voice your concerns. This is an environment of psychological safety, and it's a key component in workplaces that wish to benefit from innovative, creative thinking.
However, in a culture of blame, you may be scared to voice your opinion for fear of drawing attention to yourself. You may feel like you can’t relax around your coworkers, let alone bounce ideas off them. Needless to say, this creates an unpleasant, demoralizing work atmosphere where most will struggle to thrive.
In an organization with a blame culture, people are likely to be far more risk averse than in an environment where mistakes are accepted and addressed neutrally. It makes sense - people don’t want to paint a target on their backs. Faced with a culture of blame, the safest thing to do is to keep your head down. And so, the status quo goes unchallenged.
Within teams, a blame culture can be disastrous. According to Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, trust is the most important element that underpins a team’s ability to work together.
But trust cannot develop in an environment where each person is focused on self-preservation. And, where team members are willing to throw each other under the bus in order to avoid getting blamed themselves, trust will be nonexistent.
In contrast to the highly destructive, toxic nature of blame culture, employees in a no blame culture do not fear what will happen to them if they make a mistake.
Nobody’s neck is on the line: the conversation stays about how a mistake was made, rather than who was responsible. The facts of the situation are the focus, which means emotions do not run high. The situation remains depersonalized and nobody has to feel at risk.
Indeed, because risk and punishment are taken out of the equation, people are a lot more likely to test out new ideas, raise concerns - and even point out problems that have occurred. As they aren’t worried about becoming the “fall guy”, they don’t have an incentive to cover up errors and issues.
This leads to a far more open and even-handed environment, which in turn actually helps teams proactively surface and solve problems.
And because nobody has to be suspicious about being thrown under the bus by one of their colleagues, morale and collaboration also tend to be far better in a no blame culture.
Let’s dig in deeper by examining some examples of how no blame culture functions compared to blame culture.
In a blame culture, individual culpability is the focus. Something is understood to have gone wrong in the execution - but the fault is laid at the feet of people involved.
If only they’d followed the procedure properly, executed the process as planned, then we wouldn’t be in this mess…
But this line of thinking lets processes, workflows and procedures off the hook, rather than considering how they may have contributed to the mistakes that were made. The opposite is true in a no blame culture.
When something goes wrong, rather than the question being “Who is responsible?” the conversation is framed as: “What about this process allowed this mistake to happen?”
What was it in the workflow that went wrong? Were there any fail-safes in place, and, if so, why didn’t they work as needed?
This conversation is far more productive than playing the blame game. The process gets tightened up, and the same mistake is far less likely to happen again in the future.
Even Toto Wolff, the formidable leader of the Mercedes Formula 1 team, takes this perspective. The stakes are high in the world of F1; the pace of change is fast and the competition is brutal. And Wolff believes that the best way to get results in this context is by improving processes - not blaming people:
“You need to make [mistakes] a collective problem. It’s not the person we blame; it’s the problem we blame. It’s the process.”
The fundamental attribution error is a pretty common cognitive bias, and it underpins many of the assumptions that lead to blame culture. When we approach situations with this bias, it means that we assume people’s actions are a reflection of their personality, rather than considering the influence of situational factors.
In other words, it makes us think people are messing up “deliberately”.
For example, let’s say a student is late to class. Their teacher assumes that the student was late because they are disorganized and don’t care enough about their education. But, in reality, the student was late because their bus got stuck in traffic. It was totally out of their hands, and their lateness doesn’t reflect anything about their attitude to school.
In organizations with a culture of blame, managers will often make this attribution error. They may assume that mistakes indicate carelessness and incompetence, reflective of a poor attitude and low standards.
But where there is no blame culture, managers take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Rather than jumping to conclusions about the attitude of their team, they think about multiple factors in context.
Perhaps people didn’t have all the information they needed to make the right decisions, because the teams are too siloed? Maybe they were rushing, because their workload was too high? Perhaps there was some miscommunication, because the documentation process failed?
If a person makes a mistake because they are (in your eyes) a lazy and bad employee, there’s not much you can do other than stick them on an improvement plan and hope for the best. But if you take a context-driven approach, you can actively address the factors that are making it harder for your team to do a good job.
Blame culture comes hand-in-hand with fear. When an organization has a habit of looking for scapegoats, you might fear that one slip-up could spell disaster for your reputation, or even cost you your entire career.
The most well studied (and perhaps most extreme) example of this is in healthcare. With the welfare and even the lives of patients on the line, a devastating amount of responsibility can hang over the heads of practitioners. It’s no surprise, then, that when healthcare settings meet blame culture, it’s a toxic mix. An enormous amount of fear is created, which generates a host of dysfunctional behavior.
Healthcare practitioners who work within a blame culture find that their ability to cooperate with their colleagues deteriorates as the essential psychological safety required for collaborative working falls apart.
People feel less able to report errors and mistakes, leading to cascading problems. Incidences of bullying rises, and the workplace atmosphere becomes hostile. Professional relationships break down - making it harder to achieve the best outcomes for patients.
In contrast, a no blame culture removes the toxic fear that can sour collaborative relationships. When the lens is shifted from individual blame to group responsibility, there is team incentive to work together for better results.
At Runn, our engineering team embraces a blame-free culture of collective responsibility, rather than fixating on individual culpability. And, as our CTO Rowan Savage explains, this builds an atmosphere of positive, proactive collaboration for efficient problem-solving:
‘For every single change that occurs in our application, we have a person who creates a change and a person who reviews the change. That's how something gets approved and put into an application. As soon as it goes into the application, the change is no longer owned by the person who created it. It belongs to everyone on the team. So if there’s a problem with that - if there's a bug that needs to be fixed - it’s a shared issue. We don't go back to the person who originally did it. We approved it as a team. So now we work out how to fix it as a team.’
Learn more about how we build healthy teams at Runn ➡️
First up, to build a no blame culture at your workplace, take some inspiration from folks who study systems theory.
In a complex system, one particular factor alone is rarely the cause of a problem. Rather, a factor or several factors can cause cascading impacts. That’s why people who study complex systems - from supply chains, to traffic infrastructure, to ecosystems - try to consider processes as holistically as possible. They consider the relational impact of all parts of the system.
For instance, a minor bottleneck at one point might lead to a delay that looks insignificant on the surface, but the impact of this delay might cascade through the system leading to greater problems elsewhere.
When we take a systems approach to our organizational problems, it takes the emphasis off of individual elements and instead looks at the broader context. After all, organizational structures and workflows, too, are complex systems with many interacting elements.
Finger-pointing and blaming individuals for discrete mistakes makes no sense when you’re considering a complex, dynamic system. You need to consider how everything works together as a whole, and assess where the weak points are.
By looking at systems and processes in this way, we can identify areas for improvement and work together to find solutions. This can lead to a more proactive and constructive approach to problem-solving - an approach that disrupts the status quo to look for ways to make things better.
It becomes about learning from mistakes and issues, and finding ways to improve, rather than being punished or criticized for missteps.
We all know there’s no ‘I’ in a team. It’s a cliche, but it is the cornerstone of healthy teams that operate with a no blame culture.
In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni highlights the risks involved when teams end up full of individuals who do not check their egos at the door. People who pay excessive attention to their career advancement or prioritize their own desire to be seen as a star performer can be the root of blame culture and fractious competition, argues Lencioni.
To counter this, he suggests setting bold team goals to refocus the team’s energy from personal goals to group achievements. A ‘one team’ goal - rather than individual goals and KPIs - can incentivize teamwork, eradicate bottlenecks, and improve collaboration. It’s also an important step to eradicating blame culture and unhelpful competition between individuals.
Creating a ‘one team’ mindset helps individuals rally around shared goals, support one another, and achieve together.
Robust risk management has a part to play in establishing a no blame culture. If risks are proactively accounted for and strategies put in place to mitigate them, this can prevent situations from escalating dramatically and becoming blame games.
Additionally, if you present risk management as an iterative process that always has room for improvement, you embed the idea that you’re always eager to learn, always seeking to “fail better” next time.
By taking this approach, you signal an openness, humbleness, and transparency in communication about risks - a culture where people feel comfortable speaking up and sharing their concerns without fear of repercussions or blame. Once again, it’s not about ego - it’s about working together for the best outcomes.
For a no blame culture to flourish, teams have to trust each other. When people feel part of a strong, successful team, they develop a sense of mutual accountability, which means they're more likely to take ownership of their mistakes and work together to find solutions.
This can lead to a more proactive and solution-focused approach to problem-solving, rather than a reactive one where people are absorbed in trying to avoid blame.
Read on to learn more about how to build trust-based, healthy team relationships ➡️
How your organization reacts to errors and adverse events is not set in stone. If your workplace culture incentivizes colleagues throwing each other under the bus, some detoxifying is needed - and there are steps you can take to make this happen.
That said, an entrenched culture of blame is not going to be easy to turn around. A lot of fear and ill-will has to be dispensed with, and this cannot happen overnight. A blame-free culture has to be built around a realistic understanding that human error happens, and that mistakes are an opportunity for learning. It has to be nurtured and encouraged with the right processes and actions.
However, for all the improvements it will bring, it's worth the journey. Secure the no blame culture, and reap the benefits of becoming a more resilient, innovative, positive organization.
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