Shifting from the Blame Game to Empowerment: The Hallmark of Effective Leadership

In our professional lives as leaders, things go wrong. Deadlines and targets are missed. Effort is wasted. A media campaign falls short of its desired impact. A disappointed client terminates a contract. 

Looking for someone to blame in these moments is a common response to disappointment. The act of blaming can be reflexive, even instinctual, and it is the people closest to us—most often those on our own team—who bear the brunt.

Blaming is a losing game that extracts enormous costs for an organization, poisoning the culture, eroding respect and trust, sowing dissent, and distorting and diluting  leadership intent.

It is also detrimental to employee safety and well-being, job satisfaction, and retention.

Blaming robs an organization of opportunities to learn from mistakes and failures, blocking pathways to individual and organizational learning that are vital to innovation.

Many organizations could take cues from protocols in high-risk industries where lives are on the line and there’s neither room nor time for blame. These industries require living day to day and include “high-reliability organizations” like emergency rooms, fire stations, military combat crews, air traffic control stations, or space travel engineers. Working to avoid disaster, they require the highest possible levels of transparency and foster environments where team members have each other’s backs.

Blaming is a power defensive reaction that is challenging to step out of.

Psychologists and evolutionary biologists alike recognize that blaming is an ingrained human impulse that has self-preservation at its core.

Blaming occurs as an instinctive reaction when facing or anticipating possible loss or punishment, whether in society (where the punishment might even be capital) or in organizations (where shaming, banishment or firing can take place). It is a run at preserving power, rank, status, reputation, or job, and it takes us out of our deep brain and masks our feelings of powerlessness and fear.

When we choose to blame, we give ourselves a double dose of disempowerment.

Blaming distracts from self-reflection, specifically on our own role in the situation at hand. It constricts our sense of choice and creates standoffs, with others as well as internally within ourselves. As a transfer or displacement of agency, blaming not only deflects awareness of the impact of our own choices and actions, it also keeps us from embracing our own capacity and seeing the range of constructive possibilities and opportunities that might actually be realistic in a given situation.Self-reflection, by contrast, fosters transparency, relational awareness and a learning mindset which in turn enables systems thinking and even greater avenues of resilience and agency.

“It seems to me,” said Mama, who had heard the crash, “that instead of shouting and pointing fingers, we should get to work and solve the problem.”

Blaming can quickly become an entrenched behavior.

As Chris Argyris demonstrates, talented, successful employees are frequently poor learners, precisely because of their greater tendency to blame others for mistakes. For them, personal failure is rarely admitted let alone taken as an opportunity for introspection. The problem is that all of this blaming and shaming is a distraction from solving root-cause problems, dealing with the systemic challenges of an organization, and gaining momentum to achieve strategic intent. It creates unnecessary drama and can siphon the joy—and therefore the energy—out of our teams.

How can we stop pointing fingers and get to work? What practical steps can we take when something shatters and we are at risk of following the impulse to blame?

Emphasize that organizational failures are systemic

When problems or failures occur, begin from the premise that systemic failures underlie them. Something is to blame, not someone. Focus management energy on what rather than who failed in any particular circumstance. Recognize that the identification of individual culpability alone is counterproductive and taking the next step to accusation is even more so. Communicate this deliberate shift in perspective from blame to learning throughout your organization.

It will take practice for leaders to make and model this change, especially when it seems obvious that an individual missed a target or a deadline. We use a model with our clients that helps them understand that while individuals are accountable, they are also reliant on systems, processes, and tools that support accountability. Many times, it is the performance infrastructures that are broken—not the individual contributors, who are trying mightily to meet their goals. Leaders must look squarely at organizational breaks, and take responsibility for their own role as well. A lack of clarity in expectations, timing, or priority of a deliverable is often at the heart of a breakdown.

Encourage reporting of “failures”

A fear of reporting can turn a small problem into a massive failure. 

Consider this unusual yet highly illustrative example: Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward, his program to rapidly industrialize China by converting rural land to use by small industry during the 1950s, led to mass starvation. Thousands of district officials across China were simultaneously too terrified to report falling far short of production targets, and each local official instead juked the stats. The cumulative effect of this fear was widespread famine. 

Fear of sanctions for reporting failure in business settings may have less dramatic consequences, but such fear is the primary reason organizations remain mired in blame cultures.

Only after everyone is confident that failures will always result in a  learning opportunity, rather than negative  consequences, can the next step of adopting a no-blame culture be taken–normalizing and taking the drama out of  foreporting failures and mistakes. Leaders should first model  (admit mistakes they make), then communicate the importance of learning from mistakes as a team,and finally demonstrate the safety of reporting failure by responding with curiosity about the “what” when something goes wrong rather than interest in “who” is accountable.

Develop processes for reflection

Processes for reflection are the heart of no-blame cultures. They promote the reporting of failures, and provide safety and continuity  for learning, improvement, and innovation. Conducted with skill, they create a predictable culture, confirming that mistakes will be handled in a way that reinforces learning rather than censure. When employees experience consistent handling of mistakes, their subjective feelings of safety can generate agency in problem-solving and energize individual and collective efforts.

Generally, these processes should be inclusive and holistic. They should include the individuals who reported or made mistakes, and also others who are likely to offer insights on corrections and improvements. They should explore the systemic context, process gaps, and whether new tools are needed to address the challenges. 

Debriefs of mistakes can be done through informal brainstorming sessions and situational committees can be formed to provide analyses of bigger, more pervasive problems and come with recommendations.

The results themselves need to be transparently communicated, so people within your organization can see that the reflection process is not merely an exercise.

Embrace and restore responsibility

A no-blame culture doesn’t mean no accountability. When the learning processes suggested above are clear and embedded, a sense of individual responsibility and accountability will organically be restored.  People want to take responsibility when they know they can learn rather than be punished if they take risks on big challenges.  “Where is my responsibility in this?” becomes a question people take pleasure in asking of themselves. It is a much better question than “Who can I blame?”

Empowered, no-blame leadership helps create organizational cultures where people thrive. If you’d like to become even more intentional about your organization’s culture, read more here.

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