Top Ten Signs of a Blaming Culture
by Rick Brenner
The quality of an organization's culture is the key to high performance. An organization with a blaming culture can't perform at a high level, because its people can't take reasonable risks. How can you tell whether you work in a blaming culture?
Lenore and Brad stepped through the revolving door and out into the sunshine of the plaza. Lenore had intended to wait until they got to the car, but nobody was around, so she took a risk. "Here's a tip, since you're new," she began. "It's just not safe to talk that way in these meetings."
Brad was listening. "I figured," he said. "Warner's reaching for his double-bladed axe was the tip-off."
"Uh-huh," Lenore agreed, "and you haven't even seen real trouble yet."
Lenore is educating Brad in survival strategies for the organization he has just joined. Hopefully, it isn't too late, but if he had known what to look for, he might have been a little more cautious. Here are ten attributes that suggest that your work culture might be a blaming culture.
- Blame runs downhill in public, and uphill at the water-cooler
- Lessons-learned panels rarely assign any responsibility to the owner of the panel or to any superiors. Blame almost always runs downhill. But water-cooler talk is the opposite — people grumble about management.
- We rarely blame processes
- In a blaming culture,
if something goes wrong,
it's always the fault
of some one person
- Blame is rarely assigned to equipment, to a process, or to a situation. If something went wrong, human error is the cause.
- We usually blame an individual
- Rarely do we assign blame to a group or to several people. One is enough to satisfy the beast.
- We kill messengers
- Bearers of bad news are especially at risk, because we have a pattern of killing the messenger.
- CYA is a standard business procedure
- Since you can't be sure when you might need cover, it's only prudent to take every opportunity to cover your behind.
- In response to catastrophe, we apply revised policy retroactively
- When something bad happens, we convene a panel to write or revise policies and procedures. Then we apply them retroactively, and we blame violators.
- We never revise policy in response to success
- When something good happens, we feel that our policies and procedures are validated, so there's nothing to do.
- We have designated winners
- When good things happen, we usually assign credit to someone who's already an anointed winner. Heroes are rarely found in the trenches.
- We blame people for breaking unwritten rules
- Some policies and rules are written down only in obscure documents, if they're written at all. No matter. You can still be blamed for violating them.
- People get sandbagged
- Some people find out about a failure or policy violation for the very first time in their annual reviews. This is especially maddening when having withheld the information prevented the employee from righting a wrong, or from avoiding repetitions.
If you find yourself being blamed, remember that blame is almost always inappropriate. Blaming yourself then only adds to your trouble. Learning is a far better choice. Top Next Issue
The words blame and accountability are often used interchangeably, but they have very different meanings. See "Is It Blame or Is It Accountability?," Point Lookout for December 21, 2005, for a discussion of blame and accountability. For the effects of blame on the investigations of unwanted outcomes, see "Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why," Point Lookout for April 4, 2012. For more on blaming and blaming organizations, see "Organizational Coping Patterns" and "Plenty of Blame to Go Around," Point Lookout for August 27, 2003.
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- When we decide issues at work on any basis other than the merits, we elevate the chances of making bad decisions. Here are some guidelines for ethical debate. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Ethical Debate at Work: Part II
- Outcomes of debates at work sometimes favor one party, not only at the expense of the other or others, but also at the expense of the organization. Here's Part II of a set of guidelines for steering debates toward wise outcomes. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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