How to make a good mistake – Does blame culture stifle success?

Submitted by Mark on 14th June 2022

HR, Blame culture, Human Resources, mistake, "only human" leadership, management

We often find business owners asking about blame culture and how stop it. The bottom line is that we are all human and that means at some point we will get something wrong. When there is a workplace issue, you undoubtedly need to investigate. You will want to know what happened and where the problem originated but, if that contributes to an existing culture of blame, it could turn a mistake into a disaster. 

What is a blame culture?

Essentially it is when an attitude develops in a business that means the practice of ‘blaming the other person’ and shunning responsibility becomes commonplace. Time and effort that could be better spent taking ownership, looking for solutions and ensuring the problem does not occur again, will then be spent avoiding accepting liability or reproaching others for what happened. This toxic environment then forces other employees to act in the same way as self-defence. At this point, the workforce has often taken on an attitude that supports and extends the existing culture of blame. This downward spiral is clearly not going to be helpful or productive for the employees, management, and the business overall.

Making mistakes is fine, placing the blame is not

Nobody likes to be the cause of a problem and it is therefore perfectly understandable that an employee will want to avoid taking responsibility. If there is a blame culture at play this is not only made easier, but also validated because avoidance will have become standard practice. 

Sadly, the result of all this is usually:

• Reduced engagement with the needs of the business

• Silo mentality where every employee or team is working for their own ends

• Little or no collaboration between employees and departments

• Reduced performance throughout the organisation

• Reduced job satisfaction which decreases loyalty and affects retention

That’s an unpleasant list of consequences for something which can be avoided.

If a blame culture is active, we sometimes fall into the trap of treating the mistake as the problem. We look for something to blame and that becomes the focus point for our efforts. A moment of thought tells you this is a mistake because you are not looking for a solution if you are looking for someone to blame. More to the point, you are also missing an opportunity to get more from your workforce. Firstly, learning from mistakes creates experience and develops new skills. Secondly, because of fear of blame, the problem will repeat because nobody will be willing to take responsibility and ownership of it. 

The need to fail

If you look at any area of excellence you will see that most high achieving people failed, often repeatedly, before achieving success. Champion sports people for example, focus on their failings, accept them, and specifically work on those areas. Billie-Jean King, who won over 39 major tennis titles in her career, summed this up in a simple sentence. 

 ‘Champions keep playing until they get it right’

Interestingly only 12 of the trophies she won were for singles. Her continual development also brought her winning ways to others. Similarly, Indian cricket legend Rahul Dravid earned himself the nickname of ‘The Wall’ for his stoic ability to remain at the batting crease in the face of hostile bowing and some of the finest players in the world. He earned that title because he realised the flaws in his technique and worked with them. Again, he emphasises the importance of development from failing when he states:

‘I have failed at times, but I never stop trying.’

The world of business is awash with exceptional ‘mistake makers’ and ‘failures’ from Bill Gates to Walt Disney. In fact, it is rare to find any successful person who has not made mistakes and often even suffered catastrophic results from their bad decisions. They all also all have a second thing in common. They all absorbed the lesson and move on. Unfortunately, one of the most destructive aspects of a blame culture is that it prevents this kind of development. Top performers show us that it is OK to fail if you grow from that experience. This is in direct opposition to a blame culture where accepting responsibility and ownership of the problem are discouraged.

Causes and cures of blame culture

The cause of a defensive response and the desire to shed responsibility for issues in a workforce is usually fear. Concerns over losing their job or of severe punishments for example are one of the most common root causes of a culture where ownership of problems is an issue. Sadly, once an untreated blame culture becomes endemic, the level of that fear can only rise and spread.

It stands to reason then that the only way to cure a blame culture is to remove the fear. To do that requires creating a workplace where a mistake is accepted as in inevitable part of the working landscape, can be owned without fear of undue or excessive reprisals, and resolution is common practice. I specifically mention undue and excessive reprisals because sometimes it is necessary to have a more appropriate and stronger response. Misconduct and performance issues and so forth still need to be dealt with, but these are a separate matter. In fact, eradicating a blame culture will allow for a cleaner, more precise, disciplinary process when it is needed.

To remove a blame culture or prevent one developing a business must be:

• Prepared to focus on why the issue happened as well as what the incident was. Focusing on the ‘why’ facilitates development points and designates clear areas of ownership.

• Led by a top-down attitude of mutual responsibility. Unfortunately, many blame cultures originate at the highest level. Pressure is applied downwards and that is then passed along.

• Dedicated to raising awareness of the effects of blame on those who adopt it and their victims. Understanding what is happening allows the workforce to actively participate in stopping it.

• Committed to continually reinforcing the no-blame culture they want to create. This means giving responsibility and a level of trust back to the workforce, so they own and resolve problems as they occur.

As a last thought on blame culture. One ironic side effect of recognising them is that management often feel guilty that they allowed them to develop. This is counterproductive and rather unfair. Workplace blame cultures are often hidden to those involved in creating them. Once they are exposed everyone needs to address them with a positive, resolution based, approach. That includes management.

Here to help

Call us on 01604 763494 if any of the above sounds familiar and we will be happy to see how we can help you.