March 20, 2024

Human and Organizational Performance: Moving Beyond Blame

Our current digital age, defined by competitive job markets and remote workforces, is experiencing a change to the once standard work patterns. Many businesses now allow flexible work environments or hours with the goal of creating sustainable work life balances and retaining valuable staff. This trend of turning inward and looking at employee wellness plans as a benefits differentiator seems to be a very common theme. With market led improvements to workplace culture, employers are hopeful to see increases to productivity and the retention of their staff; and oftentimes they do. However, in the pursuit of excellence, organizations often overlook one cultural element that negates their ongoing improvement efforts - that element is blame culture.

What is Blame Culture?

Blame culture, characterized by a tendency to assign fault rather than focusing on solutions, is a detrimental force within many workplaces. It fosters fear, stifles creativity, and hampers collaboration.

Blame is often a knee-jerk reaction to setbacks or failures within an organization. When something goes wrong, fingers are pointed, and individuals are held accountable. It is a natural human tendency to try and assign responsibility/accountability to an individual, and in many cases, this accountability leads to blame which is typically associated with discipline.

Blame Fixes Nothing

Blaming individuals for mistakes will only lead to a work environment where fear of repercussion stifles innovation and acceptable risk-taking. Instead of admitting errors and working towards solutions, employees may resort to covering up mistakes or deflecting blame onto others. This not only hampers individual growth but also undermines the collective performance of the organization. Blame culture often becomes counterproductive, cyclical, and leads to no good end. Blame fixes Nothing.

The Impact of Blame Culture on Performance

The presence of blame culture within an organization can have far-reaching consequences for employee performance. This includes:

  • Reduced Innovation - In an environment where mistakes are met with blame, employees are less likely to take risks or think outside the box. Innovation thrives on appropriate risk taking and learning from failure. By instilling a fear of a reflexive consequence, organizations stifle the very creativity that drives progress.
  • Diminished Collaboration - Blame creates a culture of distrust and self-preservation, where colleagues might view each other with suspicion rather than support. Collaboration suffers as individuals prioritize protecting themselves over working together towards common goals. Employees within your organization will point fingers and blame a lack of leadership. The results of diminished collaboration will ultimately manifest itself in reduced productivity.
  • Decreased Morale - When employees are fearful of being on the receiving end of punishment for honest errors and mistakes, morale and motivation levels plummet. A demoralized workforce is unlikely to perform at its best.

What Can Leaders do?

Leaders should try to use all incidents or events as opportunities to learn. Determining employee accountability should only occur if and when an employee knowingly and deliberately acts with conscious disregard to a substantial and unjustifiable risk. Most disciplinary processes treat every event the same - based on the outcome and not the behavior. The punishment is usually dictated by policies which likely do not account for the context of the situation. This can lead to wrongful punishment for honest mistakes.

Shifting Towards Solutions

To break free from the cycle of blame and unlock the full potential of human organizational performance, a shift in mindset is imperative. Here are some strategies to foster a more constructive approach:

  • Focus on Learning - View incidents as opportunities for growth and learning. Encourage open dialogue about mistakes and cultivate a culture where learning and growth is gleaned from setbacks
  • Promote Psychological Safety - Create an environment where employees feel safe to voice their opinions, take risks, and admit mistakes without fear of retribution. Psychological safety fosters trust and collaboration, laying the foundation for high-performing teams.
  • Assume Positive Intent - People make mistakes and mistakes are a part of being human. When something unexpected happens (this could be an incident, injury or near miss), leaders need to approach the situation with the assumption that the employee was trying to do the right thing. This is far more common than a reckless choice showing conscious disregard. Leaders need to ground their reaction, their follow up investigation, and their corrective actions in that assumption. Shift the focus from individual blame to personal accountability. Encourage teams and leaders to take ownership of failures. This will help to foster a sense of shared responsibility for organizational outcomes.
  • Lead by Example - Leaders play a crucial role in shaping organizational culture. Leaders' response matters - both in the moment, and in longer-term approaches. Lead by example by first admitting your own mistakes, soliciting feedback, and then fostering a culture of personal accountability and continuous improvement. Good leaders try to share all of the successes and own all of the blame. A good example of this approach to leadership can be found in Jocko Willink’s book, Extreme Ownership.

Human organizational performance can have positive and lasting effects on organizations that are looking to make progressive changes to their workplace culture. By moving away from a blame-centric mindset to embrace a culture of learning, collaboration, and personal accountability, companies can foster a shared responsibility mentality for organizational outcomes.