Recognizing and Reversing a Culture of Blame
I once worked for a short time in a blaming culture. Whenever something went wrong, it was always someone else’s fault. It was as if everyone kept a list of people to blame so they could quickly divert attention from their own role in the mishap. It was a miserable place to work.
In general, a culture of blame is one in which people are reluctant to accept responsibility for things that go wrong. But it’s more than that, because people who work in a blaming culture become so enmeshed in it that blaming becomes an automatic response. The notion that taking responsibility is an option doesn’t even enter into the picture.
Other signs of a blaming culture include attempts to conceal mistakes, obscurity about who is responsible for what, and a lack of a commitment to excellence. In a sense, blaming is a natural human response, something most people do at times to protect themselves, their colleagues, or their turf. But when an organization is plagued by relentless blaming, it becomes a toxic place to work.
It’s nearly impossible for an individual, unsupported by colleagues and superiors, to reverse an organizationwide culture of blame. Still, it’s possible to demonstrate on a small scale what appropriate behavior looks like. You can do that by being forthcoming about your own mistakes and taking responsibility for them. If you’re in a position of leadership, such as a team leader or department manager, you’ll be creating a model for others to follow.
I remember one time when I tried this myself. As the result of an IT error, a customer department was going to be charged for services it hadn’t received. I apologized to the customer manager, said it was our fault, and assured her we were going to reverse the charges. It was a no-brainer, really; it was obviously an IT error. Still, I’ll never forget the manager’s comment: “Thank you. In all my years here, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard IT apologize for anything.” I felt good being acknowledged this way, though also terrible that the manager had had so many negative experiences with IT to justify that comment.
Whether you’re the CEO or a worker bee, consider what you can do to create an environment in which employees are willing to acknowledge their mistakes. Most people are more productive and far more content working in an organization where, instead of pointing the finger of blame at others, they can admit their mistakes and take responsibility for them.