As Walter studied the next slide, Ellen's position became clear. The slide showed her root cause diagram with colored bubbles indicating which department had contributed which causes, and Geoff owned the largest share. If she was playing the blame game, Geoff was her target.
To prevent a battle between Ellen and Geoff, Walter offered, "I can see there's plenty of blame to go around, though I'm sure we could debate the allocations."
Walter's tactic might be successful. Distributing blame across the entire team is one way to prevent scapegoating. It also has an unintended consequence — it validates the idea of assigning blame.
Blame is toxic to organizations. When blame is in the air, punishment follows. To avoid punishment, we deflect blame from ourselves, or allocate it to others. We'll even take action to insulate ourselves from blame — we dodge involvement, withhold contributions, and make protective "CYA" statements.
The ensuing confusion prevents the organization and its people from learning from failures. Organizations and people who cannot learn from failures inevitably repeat them.
When blame is in the air,
punishment followsBlame-oriented cultures (B cultures) seek causes so they can punish, while Responsibility-oriented cultures (R cultures) seek causes so they can learn. To identify the culture of your organization, look at how people use language, how they acknowledge failure, how they understand failure, and how they look at the past.
- Using language
- In B cultures, people "take the blame," "get tagged," "get dinged," or "take the fall." Generally, B cultures have "post mortems" while R cultures have "retrospectives."
- Acknowledging failure
- B cultures have difficulty acknowledging failure, because acknowledgment precedes blame, and blame precedes punishment. Failing projects live on, long past the time when they should have been cancelled. R cultures acknowledge failures more easily, because they see them as opportunities to learn. Projects that should be cancelled (or restarted) are.
- Understanding failure
- To limit the resulting punishment, B cultures think failure is caused by the actions of a single person or organization. R cultures see failure as the result of a complex network of causes. They do this, in part, to maximize the resulting learning.
- Looking at the past
- In B cultures, retrospectives — if they are held at all — are starved of resources. When retrospectives do occur, they're tense, painful, dangerous affairs in which people withhold comments that could otherwise lead to real progress. R cultures invest in retrospectives, enlisting professional assistance to ensure the safety of participants. The organization and its people both benefit.
Consistent with B culture thinking, those who live in B cultures often blame the CEO or upper management for their problems. Although changing the culture from B to R does indeed require change at the top, everyone must change. Change can start anywhere. It can start with you. Top Next Issue
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For indicators that an organizational culture is a blaming culture, see "Top Ten Signs of a Blaming Culture," Point Lookout for February 16, 2005. The words blame and accountability are often used interchangeably, but they have very different meanings. See "Is It Blame or Is It Accountability?," Point Lookout for December 21, 2005, for a discussion of blame and accountability. For the effects of blame on the investigations of unwanted outcomes, see "Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why," Point Lookout for April 4, 2012. For more on blaming and blaming organizations, see "Organizational Coping Patterns."
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- And on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
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