Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 35;   August 27, 2003:

Plenty of Blame to Go Around

by

You may have heard the phrase "plenty of blame to go around," or maybe you've even used it yourself. Although it sometimes does bring an end to immediate finger pointing, it also validates blame as a general approach. Here's how to end the blaming by looking ahead.

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.

A Blame CircleTo 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 follows
Blame-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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Dispersed Teams and Latent Communications  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing ChangeIs your organization embroiled in Change? Are you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt? Read 101 Tips for Managing Change to learn how to survive, how to plan and how to execute change efforts to inspire real, passionate support. Order Now!

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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See also Organizational Change for more related articles.

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For organizations in crisis, some but not all their people understand the situation. Toxic conflict can erupt between those who grasp the problem's severity and those who don't. Trying to resolve the conflict by educating one's opponents rarely works. There are alternatives. Available here and by RSS on November 3.

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