Following unwanted outcomes, we often commission "lessons learned" exercises to investigate the conditions that brought about the unwanted outcomes. We want to learn how to prevent recurrences of those outcomes or any other unwanted outcomes that might flow from similar conditions. In too many organizations, these exercises yield useless or misleading results.
What we seek is Truth: the reasons why the unwanted outcome occurred. But these investigations rely on reports from people who participated in or witnessed events leading to the outcome. To find the truth we must interpret the reports we receive, and those reports can contain a variety of misleading elements. Here's a short catalog of those elements.
- Confusions and mistakes
- Relying on memory and impressions, witnesses and participants sometimes get it wrong. They get confused about the order of events, or who did what. They confuse what they actually witnessed with what they heard about second-hand.
- An excuse is a fact, condition, or situation that provides protection for someone from blame for the unwanted outcome. Excuses are those offerings that, if true, most people would accept as relieving someone of being regarded as having caused or contributed to causing the unwanted outcome.
- An allegation is the opposite of an excuse — it's a fact, condition, or situation that, if true, affixes to someone blame for the unwanted outcome. While excuses tend to be offered by the person excused, allegations tend to be offered by someone other than the one blamed.
- Reports that omit relevant information can also mislead investigators. Omissions can be intentional, but they need not be. They can result from numerous factors including faulty memory, emotional trauma, and poor technique by the investigator.
- Concealment To find the truth we must
interpret reports that can
contain a variety of
misleading elementstranscends intentional omission. It includes deliberate actions to deflect the investigator from the information concealed, such as destruction or obfuscation of information, or propagating false accounts of events. It can also include actions that make the information difficult to retrieve. For example, important witnesses might be relocated, terminated, or transferred.
- Fabrications are fictions intended to mislead the investigator. When well crafted and when delivered by someone who is unaware that they are fabrications, they are difficult to detect, because the deliverer isn't actually lying. Detecting them often requires tracing them to their source.
In determining who acted (or did not act) so as to contribute to the genesis of the unwanted outcome, there's a high risk that some witnesses and participants might experience the investigation as a search for someone to blame. The investigators themselves might adopt this belief.
In organizational cultures that tend to affix blame, investigations are unlikely to uncover much Truth, because people fear blame. Over time, people who don't master these tools for misleading investigations tend to be discredited, ejected from the organization, or allocated to less central roles. Organizations that want to improve outcomes would do well to eliminate blame from their cultures. Next in this series Top Next Issue
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. 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 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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- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.