Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 7;   February 16, 2005: Top Ten Signs of a Blaming Culture

Top Ten Signs of a Blaming Culture

by

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?
Beatty Pennsylvania broad ax

Beatty Pennsylvania broad ax. The broad axe (also called hewing axe or side axe) was the preferred tool for squaring timber or flattening the sides of logs. This was an essential step in preparing material for log buildings and timber framing for houses or barns. Later applications were for railroad ties and trestle bridges. The blade is as broad as a headsman's axe, though the handle is shorter. Photo courtesy U.S. Federal Highway Administration.

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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Recovering Time: Part I  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 "wrapquotes=" and "Plenty of Blame to Go Around," Point Lookout for August 27, 2003.

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When new problems pop up one after the other, we describe our response as "firefighting." We move from fire to fire, putting out flames. How can we end the madness? Available here and by RSS on January 25.
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We know we're in firefighting mode when a new urgent problem disrupts our work on another urgent problem, and the new problem makes it impossible to use the solution we thought we had for some third problem we were also working on. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for getting out of firefighting mode. Available here and by RSS on February 1.

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