A project fails. Do you or the people in your team immediately ask “who did this?” Is time, effort and resources going to be spent trying to put a name and a face on the problem? Is someone or a group of people going to be punished? Will they be humiliated in front of scores of coworkers? Then you have a workplace blame culture.
This mindset has dire consequences: people will be reluctant to take initiatives, risks or even accept responsibility. If employees realize they made a mistake in a company with a blame culture, they might focus their energy on hiding that mistake instead of working to fix it. A small mistake could then turn into a major issue, which would be even more detrimental not just for the employee or group of people but for the company at large.
When those kinds of mistakes snowball into chaos and the consensus is to point to someone to blame, we are actually pointing 3 more fingers: The first one points at the system that we are a part of, the second one points at the culture that enabled a mistake to grow into a larger failure and the third points at us, the blamers.
We are not denying that there are exceptions, for instance if one person’s attitude is toxic towards other people in a given project or in the company. But the question should shift from “who did this?” to “why did this happen?”
Let’s review the 3 hidden fingers and why we’re holding them responsible.
First, the system. If the company or project can be put in danger by the actions of one individual or a small group of people, that means it is weak and prone to failure. A system that doesn’t take into account human error is an inherently flawed one. It is a ticking time bomb, waiting to collapse.
The second one is the culture or the atmosphere of blame. The blamer cannot work on his own. He needs to create a culture in which people not only fear the repercussions of blame, but actively help in pinpointing the fall guy.
The third finger is pointing at the blamer: that one is rather self-explanatory. The blamer is the the center of the blame culture. That person creates a tense atmosphere. Furthermore it promotes a false ideal of a mistake-free environment. Such conditions are not great breeding grounds for innovation and growth.
Reversing a blame culture is a strenuous task, especially if it has been the default setting for a long time. We recommend a three step process in doing so :
Work on the system to ensure that the entire system does not collapse because of a single action by an individual or small group. A failure is a weak spot in the company. Use mistakes to make your core stronger.
Make sure there is redundancy: If one employee or a small entity is responsible for quality control, security or compliance, that is a risky personnel move. Especially in cases of life-or-death situation, you don’t want one task to be the sole responsibility of one person who can have a bad day, have personal issues or be sick and miss something critical.
Add security steps to critical tasks: Mitigate the possibility for fatal errors. Just like an emergency handle that’s encased in a breakable glass, make sure that nothing happens because of a momentary lack of attention. At the SNCB to unplug or reconnect two trains, an agent needs to disconnect high voltage electricity cable. In order to perform either action, the individual needs use the same key to turn on the train, preventing a fatal electrocution that would occur should the action be performed on a running train.
Be flexible: No system is perfect, at least not to begin with. This means adapting your operation frequently to make sure the company remains agile enough to innovate and adapt, while being able to spot out errors. If a procedure is too strict at the beginning, it might be disregarded. If they are not safe enough, the procedure might be too risky.
Clearly define roles: Don’t just put many people in charge of “checking on the process.” An unorganized redundancy is not much better than a critical task being entrusted with only one employee.
Empower a productive culture of understanding and acceptance. Humans are very adaptable but also variable and imperfect. If your company or project requires a human labor force, you will need empathy. There is no shortcut. You need to accept that, from time to time, people make mistakes. In order to make sure that the employees aren’t making crucial errors, the company needs to set up some procedure standards.
Make people feel safe: Employees, even great ones, have off days. More often than not, stress caused by the job, the company or a superior can derail a great employee’s focus and work. Above all, strive to create an environment in which employees are comfortable admitting their errors. No one is perfect, and one employee’s mistake could save five more worker’s time.
Ensure that the procedure is understood by the person performing it: If the employee understands why the safety protocol is put in place, the person is much more likely to respect it and systematically follow it. Also, this could help reshape the process if it is too strict or too lenient in the future.
Be the change: it matters! Try to reset the culture by owning your mistakes. This is crucial if you’re any kind of leading position, because you’ll be creating a model for team members to follow. It’s equally important to notice your own instincts to blame someone and not to get bogged down by what happened, instead of focusing on how to move forward.
We understand that you might need to hold someone accountable. Our society is wired that way. That’s why when there’s a crime, we focus on finding the criminal and administering the punishment. Sometimes, you may need to, but that should be your absolute last resort. If a colleague slipped up, try to look past the problem. Why did it happen? What state of mind is the person in? Where is the crack in the system that allowed this to be? Because if you don’t ask yourself those questions, the who and when variables will change, but the problem will not.