10 “Don’ts” to a Better Workplace – 2. Don’t Build or Allow a Blame Culture

“That’s not our job.” “We have to find out who’s responsible!” “He can do that, he’s been here long enough and knows what he’s doing.” These and others are things we’ve likely all heard in our workplace, and too many companies downplay or ignore these situations with attitudes like “It’s just the way it’s always been done”, or “It’d be too difficult to change”. But if companies can embrace change and are willing to make the sacrifices necessary, they can improve productivity and increase employee morale. This is one in a series of 10 changes (in no particular order) that can be implemented toward achieving that goal.

2. Don’t Build or Allow a Blame Culture

“Praise in public, criticize in private” is a common mantra when dealing with mistakes or situation failures. While that philosophy isn’t always the best course, too much negative focus on the person(s) who made the mistake can cause more issues than it solves.

Humans are emotional creatures. That’s a fact that doesn’t cease or change when they walk through the door of employment, no matter the position or level. As such, there are few workplace situations that generate emotions more than when dealing with something that’s gone wrong. Anger, fear, shame, resentment, guilt, and disappointment are just a handful of the emotions that can be involved in these situations.

The important thing to remember is that, while levels of motivation of performance vary by individual, no one wants to do a poor job or make mistakes that cause a project, product, or situation to fail. But when a failure inevitably happens, one of three things will likely happen with the individual(s) responsible. They will:

  • Feel angry or embarrassed and try to put themselves in a position where they can’t be blamed for future occurrances
  • Feel unconcerned and continue doing what they have been
  • Feel ashamed but determined to strive to do better going forward

While some of this will depend on the individual, the vast majority of what will define how employees react to failure will be driven by the leadership and the company culture. 

While it may seem counter-intuitive that individual response and responsibility in a situation is driven by external factors, the reality is that many of the decisions people make are driven by the reactions of others to them. Because of this, the company culture created by leadership will in a very large part define how employees respond to failures and mistakes.

Here are three examples of company culture towards failures that could cause each of the following reactions above (in order). Failures/mistakes and those who make them are:

  • shamed and punished publicly and/or berated angrily in private
  • ignored or shrugged off as just “something that happens” and things continue as business as usual
  • not identified publicly while both the individual(s) and team are involved in discussions on what went wrong and how it can be prevented in the future

Of the three, the last one is the most difficult environment to create, because humans are emotional and it’s the only one that strives to take emotions out of the situation. Yet it’s the environment that is most likely to motivate employees to improve.

Why is this approach the most effective? Let’s take a look at the other two and why they typically are less effective, if not counterproductive, in preventing failures in the future.

In the second example, shrugging off the failure creates an impression of a company that doesn’t appear to be concerned with failure, making it more likely that employees will be unconcerned with failure as well. While this approach may work for those that are self-motivated, those that are motivated more by external factors are, with no repercussions, unlikely to improve and learn from their mistakes.

The first example attempts to put pressure on those responsible to do better work to avoid being publicly shamed and berated in the future. What this approach risks is that employees may find it easier to reduce their exposure by doing just the minimum required in their jobs, as well as find ways to blame others or other factors when things go wrong in the future, rather than take responsibility and learn from their mistakes. Instead of motivating employees to improve, this approach is more likely to create an atmosphere of fear or finger-pointing in an effort to avoid that kind of attention in the future.

Addressing failure is an unfortunate necessity that happens in every workplace eventually, and learning how to address those failures effectively is an important part of a company’s culture. Acknowledging the failure, not the person, and addressing it as a team is the best strategy towards improvement and preventing the failure from happening again.

How does your company address failure? What are some examples of addressing failure, good or bad, that you’ve experienced? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


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