Lenore and Brad stepped through the revolving door and out into the sunshine of the plaza. Lenore had intended to wait until they got to the car, but nobody was around, so she took a risk. "Here's a tip, since you're new," she began. "It's just not safe to talk that way in these meetings."
Brad was listening. "I figured," he said. "Warner's reaching for his double-bladed axe was the tip-off."
"Uh-huh," Lenore agreed, "and you haven't even seen real trouble yet."
Lenore is educating Brad in survival strategies for the organization he has just joined. Hopefully, it isn't too late, but if he had known what to look for, he might have been a little more cautious. Here are ten attributes that suggest that your work culture might be a blaming culture.
- Blame runs downhill in public, and uphill at the water-cooler
- Lessons-learned panels rarely assign any responsibility to the owner of the panel or to any superiors. Blame almost always runs downhill. But water-cooler talk is the opposite — people grumble about management.
- We rarely blame processes
- In a blaming culture,
if something goes wrong,
it's always the fault
of some one person
- Blame is rarely assigned to equipment, to a process, or to a situation. If something went wrong, human error is the cause.
- We usually blame an individual
- Rarely do we assign blame to a group or to several people. One is enough to satisfy the beast.
- We kill messengers
- Bearers of bad news are especially at risk, because we have a pattern of killing the messenger.
- CYA is a standard business procedure
- Since you can't be sure when you might need cover, it's only prudent to take every opportunity to cover your behind.
- In response to catastrophe, we apply revised policy retroactively
- When something bad happens, we convene a panel to write or revise policies and procedures. Then we apply them retroactively, and we blame violators.
- We never revise policy in response to success
- When something good happens, we feel that our policies and procedures are validated, so there's nothing to do.
- We have designated winners
- When good things happen, we usually assign credit to someone who's already an anointed winner. Heroes are rarely found in the trenches.
- We blame people for breaking unwritten rules
- Some policies and rules are written down only in obscure documents, if they're written at all. No matter. You can still be blamed for violating them.
- People get sandbagged
- Some people find out about a failure or policy violation for the very first time in their annual reviews. This is especially maddening when having withheld the information prevented the employee from righting a wrong, or from avoiding repetitions.
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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" and "Plenty of Blame to Go Around," Point Lookout for August 27, 2003.
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- What You See Isn't Always What You Get
- We all engage in interpreting the behavior of others, usually without thinking much about it. Whenever
you notice yourself having a strong reaction to someone's behavior, consider the possibility that your
interpretation has outrun what you actually know.
- Ground Level Sources of Scope Creep
- We usually think of scope creep as having been induced by managerial decisions. And most often, it probably
is. But most project team members — and others as well — can contribute to the problem.
- The Costanza Matrix
- The Seinfeld character "George Costanza" is famous for having said, "It's not a lie if
you believe it." What if you don't believe it and it's true? Some musings.
- Surviving Incompetence: I
- When your organization decides to undertake an effort that will certainly fail, you have options. Continuing
to oppose the decision probably isn't one of them. How can you respond to this incompetence and emerge
with your career intact?
- Avoiding Speed Bumps: I
- Many of the difficulties we encounter while working together have few long-term effects. They just cause
delays, confusion, and frustration. Eventually we sort things out, but there is a better way: avoid
the speed bumps.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.