When organizations undertake to change their cultures, the cultures sometimes behave as if they were unwilling to change. They can behave almost as if they had minds and wills of their own. Because this phenomenon is especially noticeable when we're transforming a blaming culture, it's useful to understand how blaming cultures "fight back."
An organizational culture is a blaming culture if blame plays a significant role in regulating behavior to ensure compliance with organizational expectations. Blaming cultures have difficulty reaching high levels of performance, in part because their people generally fear taking even reasonable risks. For example, a fear of being blamed for insubordination can cause an employee to refrain from questioning a superior's decision, even when that decision ought to be questioned. For more examples of the traits of blaming cultures, see "Top Ten Signs of a Blaming Culture," Point Lookout for February 16, 2005.
When we try to reduce the incidence of blaming in a culture, we encounter special challenges. Here are three examples of what makes changing a blaming culture so difficult.
- Blaming becomes covert
- Those advocating for removing blame as a management tool are likely to encounter supervisors who are accustomed to "killing the messenger." Change agents might sense progress when people deliver bad news without being subject to retribution, but the reality can be rather different.
- Supervisors might not immediately "kill the messenger," but they might eventually get around to it. For example, they can delay the execution for months or years to make it seem unrelated to the message delivery incident. The actual execution can take on any form, such as termination during a layoff or reorganization. In some cases, retribution can be delivered not by the offending supervisor, but by a proxy.
- Discussions of blaming are taboo
- In a blaming When blaming is a cultural
trait, changing the culture
is especially challengingculture that's attempting a transition, questioning incidents, procedures, or policies that are illustrative of the former blaming approach to behavior management can be interpreted as blaming and criticism. People who raise these issues are sometimes criticized for manifesting the old behaviors. The old ways remain in place because we regard questioning them as examples of the old ways.
- It's axiomatic that we cannot change what we cannot talk about. Unless we can openly discuss the costs and constraints of the status quo, coming to consensus as a group about ways to transform the status quo can remain out of reach.
- Change is blamed for hiccups
- All change entails loss. All culture change degrades organizational performance temporarily, as people try new ways of working together. But in blaming cultures, the habit of blaming leads to blaming the change itself for the temporary productivity loss.
- Instead of accepting the loss as a cost of change, the change is criticized for the loss. That can lead to rejection of the change on the basis of degraded performance.
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More articles on Organizational Change:
- Workplace Taboos and Change
- In the workplace, some things can't be discussed — they are taboo. When we're aware of taboos,
we can choose when to obey them, and when to be more flexible. When we're unaware of them, they can
limit our ability to change.
- Plenty of Blame to Go Around
- 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.
- When Fear Takes Hold
- Leading an organization through a rough patch, we sometimes devise solutions that are elegant, but counterintuitive
or difficult to explain. Even when they would almost certainly work, a simpler fix might be more effective.
- The True Costs of Cost-Cutting
- The metaphor "trimming the fat" rests on the belief that some parts of the organization are
expendable, and we can remove them with little impact on the remainder. Ah, if only things actually
worked that way...
- Good Change, Bad Change: II
- When we distinguish good change from bad, we often get it wrong: we favor things that would harm us,
and shun things that would help. When we do get it wrong, we're sometimes misled by social factors.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Three feelings are often confused with each other: embarrassment, shame, and guilt. To understand how to cope with these feelings, begin by understanding what different kinds of situations we use when we create these feelings. Available here and by RSS on December 19.
- And on December 26: Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Coping
- Coping effectively with feelings of embarrassment, shame, or guilt is the path to recovering a sense of balance that's the foundation of clear thinking. And thinking clearly at work is important if you want to avoid feeling embarrassment, shame, or guilt. Available here and by RSS on December 26.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- 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.