Is it time to end the culture of blame?

Is it right to point the finger at someone, or are leaders best to pursue a no blame policy?

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Management Today

Is it possible (or even good) to have a workplace where no one is to blame? Even when things go wrong. Jeff Lawson, CEO at technology company Twilo, believes so.

The company, which provides the tech to tell people their Uber is on its way, has had its fair share of ups and downs since its launch in 2008 – but, instead of putting the blame on someone or hunting down scapegoats, Lawson oversees a ‘blameless post-mortem’ – a system where he assesses where the company could have gone wrong (for example, overstretching staff, poor communication, and so on), rather than anything else.

So is a culture of no blame feasible – especially when mistakes can cost significant amounts of money? And isn’t it part of a manager’s to find the source of an error? “Mistakes certainly cost – and the larger the company, the larger this cost is,” says Jinesh Vohra, founder of Sprive – the app that helps with paying off mortgages. “But it’s my strong feeling that mistakes – often made with the best intentions – have to be accounted for as part of the cost of doing business.”

Although it may sound counter-intuitive, he argues that a blame-free culture in fact gives staff more responsibility. “Ranting at staff on the floor has the reverse effect – it makes a culture toxic, which leads to more pressure, which only makes mistakes more likely.”

So should we go against the grain?

However, some experts warn it may be too good to be true and that ignoring years of instinct that says blame must be apportioned, is not easy. “Leaders naturally look for consequences,” admits business transformation expert Rita Trehan, author of the recently published book, Too Proud to Lead. “This is the problem of leadership though. Unfortunately, there is so much oversight, and such a demand for accountability, that this often creates a culture of looking for who is responsible for things when they go wrong. But this needs to change.”

Dr Simon Hayward, CEO of Cirrus, part of Accenture agrees. “Overcoming a culture of caution is a major challenge for many business leaders, but experimentation, failure without fear and learning from failure are all key to building a risk-agreeable culture.”

For Hayward, anyone worried about not apportioning blame should think about the alternative – a controlling culture of fear and lack of innovation, which can be just as costly. “Fear of failure and its consequences inhibits experimentation and risk-taking,” he says. “Decision-making is slowed down when people seek higher approval to cover their backs. The lack of trust, and resulting lack of progress, can be just as frustrating.”

Interestingly, though, what Trehan is not recommending a complete lack of control. “You can have a blame-free culture but there still needs to be accountability. This is the tightrope managers must walk. You can still be blameless if there are processes which ensure incidents are learned from.”

“The best businesses don’t use the word ‘failure’ when things don’t work out as planned,” explains Robert Ordever, managing director of O.C. Tanner Europe. “They talk about ‘experimenting’ instead. This careful use of language helps to alter the whole psychology around ‘failure’.”

Case study: Joanna Swash, Group CEO, Moneypenny.

“Not making mistakes is the biggest mistake. How can we learn and innovate if we avoid situations where we think we will make mistakes?

“My mistakes have taught me to be a better person, challenge assumptions and have shown me the importance of being authentic. Accept that you are human and that you will make mistakes; everyone does, and everyone will. Embrace them as learning opportunities, know who you are and accept that. Know your strengths and your weaknesses and actively look to improve – and take responsibility.

 “No one has all the answers. By saying ‘I made a mistake and this is how I am going to fix it’ – by being open and authentic, you are demonstrating strength, courage and, ultimately, respect.”

“A no blame culture is one which encourages openness, honesty and trust. It operates within a safe environment where employees are empowered to try something new; it is about making failure, within clear boundaries, acceptable.

“As leaders, we need to encourage good, honest mistakes – those made with the best intentions but leading to poor results, as opposed to bad mistakes due to poor decisions and lack of care.”

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