I Blame Blame . . .


For creating toxic workplace cultures. Sadly, there is plenty of blame to go around for blaming. Here is my case against blame.

Let's assume that something goes wrong. In a perfect world, nothing ever goes wrong but in an uncertain, complex, fast-paced and subject-to-the-influence-of-humans world, sometimes something goes wrong. If, when something goes wrong, we blame someone, that person focuses on either defending themselves or shifting blame to someone or something else. With the focus now on defense or blame-shifting, we do not focus on finding and fixing the process issues that really created the problem. And processes are the cause of the vast majority of all problems. W. Edward Deming (one of the early pioneers of process quality and improvement) defined his 85 / 15 rule. According to Deming, 85% of problems come from the process, not the people (the other 15% of the problems come from people). So, if there is a problem and we blame the people, we will be wrong 85% of the time. I don't know about you but I prefer to be right at least 85% of the time. This leads to one of the mottos I use, try to model and teach my teams:

When there is a problem, we blame and fix processes, not people.

Besides, what kind of culture do we create when we, by blaming people, assume that people come to work each day bound and determined to make mistakes? If we believe that people are to blame, it seems we tend to micro-manage (lest those troublesome people have the latitude to make mistakes) and take away ownership. I don't know about you but I prefer cultures based on trust, not suspicion.

If you, with me, want to blame blame, what do we do? First of all, we can and should, in our micro-cultures, blame and fix processes, not people. In practice, this means that when something goes wrong, we use tools like Value Stream Mapping and 5 Why Analysis to find and resolve the process root cause that created the problem. We never ask "who" acted because we assume that the people followed the process and the process that is not yet properly error-proofed. Now this approach might initially shock our teams but if we are consistent, over time, we will enjoy the power and benefits of a great workplace culture and processes that continuously improve.

What do we do to protect our no-blame culture when it exists in a world of blame? Protection is part of our job as leaders. How do we do that? By taking the blame ourselves. Let me share an example. Some years ago, I inherited a team that had spent years in a culture of blame. As you might expect, the team's results were not that great, the team was pretty well beaten down and the team members lacked both credibility and confidence. I worked hard to change this culture and made significant progress within the team but still had to deal with the organization's strong culture of blame. When something went wrong the company CEO wanted to know who had messed up.

For example, when one of my teams was doing the planning for a critical new product, they decided to place their bet on a new technology. If the new technology worked, they would not only deliver the new product but would also put in place a technology that would be the foundation for our future. Unfortunately, the new technology did not pan out and we missed - by a long way - the planned launched date and the team had to go back and replace that new technology with one that was more proven. As you might expect news of the delayed product launch found its way to the company president. He came storming into my office and wanted to know the reason for the delayed launch. I explained, at a high level, about the bad technology bet (at least as it had been explained to me by my team). Rather than calm down the CEO this amped up his effort to blame. Who, he demanded to know, had made such a bad technology decision? Now, when the team made this decision they made the decision all by themselves - in a culture of trust you have to trust teams to make decisions - and I had no knowledge of the decision they had made until we had to delay the product launch. How then did I respond to the CEO? I lied and told him that I had made the decision to try out this new technology. I explained (by adlibbing) that this product seemed a perfect opportunity to try out a technology that, if it worked, would set us up for the future. In other words, I took the blame for something I did not do. Why did I do this? To protect my team from blame. Why did this matter to me? Because a blame-free culture creates a great place to work and thrive. I certainly did not like enduring the CEO's withering blame and so knew how debilitating blame can be. As I absorbed his blame blows I renewed my vow to purge blame from my life and every time I am tempted to blame, I remember, this experience and my conviction that blame is toxic.

And so I ask you to join me in blaming only blame and, in so doing, empowering teams to use their talents, passion and energy to advance our organization's cause.

Niel Nickolaisen is the Chief Technology Officer at OC Tanner. Niel is the author of "The Agile Culture" and "Stand Back and Deliver." Niel is passionate about helping leaders deliver in three areas: enable strategy, achieve operational excellence and create great workplace cultures - cultures based on trust and ownership.