Changing Blaming Cultures
by Rick Brenner
Culture change in organizations is always challenging, but changing a blaming culture presents special difficulties. Here are three reasons why.
A Carrick Mat, a fine example of a decorative mat made from a single cord. The ends are tucked neatly out of sight. The mat can be pulled apart by the ends of the cord, but when they are joined, pulling any part of the mat might distort it somewhat, but the mat will maintain its integrity.
So it is with blame when blame is part of the fabric of organizational culture. Suppressing blame-based behavior is not an effective means of driving it from the culture. Instead, we must find ways to motivate all members of the culture to alter their own behavior. Compelling abstinence from blame-based behavior patterns does not work.
Photo by Brian Ronald, courtesy Wikipedia.
When organizations undertake to change their cultures, the cultures sometimes behave as if they were unwilling to change. They can behave almost as if they had minds and wills of their own. Because this phenomenon is especially noticeable when we're transforming a blaming culture, it's useful to understand how blaming cultures "fight back."
An organizational culture is a blaming culture if blame plays a significant role in regulating behavior to ensure compliance with organizational expectations. Blaming cultures have difficulty reaching high levels of performance, in part because their people generally fear taking even reasonable risks. For example, a fear of being blamed for insubordination can cause an employee to refrain from questioning a superior's decision, even when that decision ought to be questioned. For more examples of the traits of blaming cultures, see "Top Ten Signs of a Blaming Culture," Point Lookout for February 16, 2005.
When we try to reduce the incidence of blaming in a culture, we encounter special challenges. Here are three examples of what makes changing a blaming culture so difficult.
- Blaming becomes covert
- Those advocating for removing blame as a management tool are likely to encounter supervisors who are accustomed to "killing the messenger." Change agents might sense progress when people deliver bad news without being subject to retribution, but the reality can be rather different.
- Supervisors might not immediately "kill the messenger," but they might eventually get around to it. For example, they can delay the execution for months or years to make it seem unrelated to the message delivery incident. The actual execution can take on any form, such as termination during a layoff or reorganization. In some cases, retribution can be delivered not by the offending supervisor, but by a proxy.
- Discussions of blaming are taboo
- In a blaming When blaming is a cultural
trait, changing the culture
is especially challengingculture that's attempting a transition, questioning incidents, procedures, or policies that are illustrative of the former blaming approach to behavior management can be interpreted as blaming and criticism. People who raise these issues are sometimes criticized for manifesting the old behaviors. The old ways remain in place because we regard questioning them as examples of the old ways.
- It's axiomatic that we cannot change what we cannot talk about. Unless we can openly discuss the costs and constraints of the status quo, coming to consensus as a group about ways to transform the status quo can remain out of reach.
- Change is blamed for hiccups
- All change entails loss. All culture change degrades organizational performance temporarily, as people try new ways of working together. But in blaming cultures, the habit of blaming leads to blaming the change itself for the temporary productivity loss.
- Instead of accepting the loss as a cost of change, the change is criticized for the loss. That can lead to rejection of the change on the basis of degraded performance.
Once blame settles into an organizational culture, it provides the culture and its people with all the tools they need to defend the status quo. Top Next Issue
Is your organization embroiled in Change? Are you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt? Read 101 Tips for Managing Change to learn how to survive, how to plan and how to execute change efforts to inspire real, passionate support. Order Now!
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send me your comments by email
, or by Web form
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful,
and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive
of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout,
as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in,
anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Organizational Change
- Pick-Up Sticks and the Change Game
- When we change organizational culture, we often stumble over unexpected obstacles. Sometimes the tangle can be so frustrating that we want to start the company over again. Here are some tips for managing large-scale cultural change.
- Plenty of Blame to Go Around
- You may have heard the phrase "plenty of blame to go around," or maybe you've even used it yourself. Although it sometimes does bring an end to immediate finger pointing, it also validates blame as a general approach. Here's how to end the blaming by looking ahead.
- The Ties that Bind
- Changing anything in an organization reveals how it's connected to its people, to its processes, to its facilities, and to the overall context. Usually, these connections reach out much further into the organization than we imagine.
- Good Change, Bad Change: Part II
- When we distinguish good change from bad, we often get it wrong: we favor things that would harm us, and shun things that would help. When we do get it wrong, we're sometimes misled by social factors.
- When Change Is Hard: Part II
- When organizational change is difficult, we sometimes blame poor leadership or "resistance." But even when we believe we have good leadership and the most cooperative populations, we can still encounter trouble. Why is change so hard so often?
See also Organizational Change and Emotions at Work for more related articles.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout
are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline?
Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Cognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Making
- For most of us, making decisions is a large part of what we do at work. And we tend to believe that we make our decisions rationally, except possibly when stressed or hurried. That is a mistaken belief — very few of our decisions are purely rational. In this eye-opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides you through the fascinating world of cognitive biases, and he'll give concrete tips to help you control the influence of cognitive biases. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Bedford, Massachusetts: October 21, Monthly Meeting, Boston SPIN.
- The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics
- There's a lot more to running an effective meeting than having the right room, the right equipment, and the right people. With meetings, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts. How the parts interact with each other and with external elements is as important as the parts themselves. And those interactions are the essence of politics for meetings. This program explores techniques for leading meetings that are based on understanding political interactions, and using that knowledge effectively to meet organizational goals. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: