A blaming culture is one in which people are reluctant to speak out, take risks, or accept responsibility at work because they fear criticism, retribution, or worse. Possible signs of a blaming culture include gossiping and side conversations, ambiguity about who is responsible for what, casting blame on outside parties such as customers, and attempts to conceal mistakes. Does this sound like your organization?
When jobs, reputations, or pride are threatened, blaming is a natural first step in protecting oneself. But as natural as blaming is, it creates its own set of problems because those who are doing the blaming invest significant time and effort in proving that someone else is responsible, while those being blamed spend as much time and effort defending themselves. Carl Alasko, author of the book Beyond Blame, defines blame as “a four-headed beast that attacks with criticism, accusation, punishment and humiliation.”
It’s no easy matter to reverse a blaming culture, but if you’re in one, try to set the stage for change by admitting your mistakes and taking responsibility for them. This is especially important if you’re a team leader, because you’ll be creating a model for team members to follow and setting an example that some employees may, in fact, never have seen before.
It’s equally important not to get caught up in the blaming behavior of others. Instead of blaming, seek to improve the situation or process that led to the blaming. It may be that there’s a people problem, but start by looking at the process to see if there’s a flaw or gap in understanding that’s making it difficult for people to do their jobs.
Of course, people do make mistakes—sometimes serious ones—and if you’re the person in charge, you may need to take some action. But in most cases, it’s best to do it in private rather than reprimanding an employee in front of the team (or an even larger group, as I’ve seen done at an all-hands meeting).
Public chastising not only makes the blamed employee fearful, but it also can make all witnesses fear they too might someday be publicly flogged. And that, in turn, makes them more likely to blame others in the future.
Above all, strive to create an environment in which employees are comfortable admitting their mistakes. No one’s perfect, and those who can acknowledge their mistakes without fear of a drubbing will be more likely to do so. Of course, some people are chronically insecure and therefore are relentless blamers. But most people are happier and far more productive working in an organization and on a team where people can be open about their mistakes—and everyone can learn from those mistakes.
Or use the approach taken in Dilbert’s company. Who’s to say it won’t work?
Naomi Karten is a writer and speaker who draws from her background in both psychology and IT. Naomi's recent books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions and Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. Naomi is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com.