How often do we as leaders, as soon as we don’t achieve the results we want, look for someone or something to blame?
Blame is all about expressing your ‘No’ to how reality actual is. Finding the “Who or what did it?” question removes us from the problem, the reality of actually handling it and sometimes even learning from it.
We need only turn on the television to see how blame functions in today’s culture. Each week, millions of viewers tune in to watch many reality TV programmes whose whole premise is to provide a platform for various forms of blame to play out.
In a work context, a culture of blame can put teams in a continuous state of fight-or-flight mode. In this environment, some might say the Darwinian survival of the fittest takes on new meaning. The culture is to avoid the being a target rather than focusing of what is possible. All that precious time that is spent on dodging blame is time that could have been spent really learning something that could transform the end results.
Once we are in the blame game the purpose can become to survive at all costs and sadly this eclipses other possibilities from a leader’s outlook. They can become so intent on being right or justifying their behaviour that the result they actually wanted in the first place is significantly less likely to be created. In this scenario they may employ some survival tactics or personas such as:
- Protection of one’s ‘position’– this could include documenting every conversation, copying oneself on every email, and keeping large files as evidence of one’s actions. Also tactically engaging in communication only if it supports said ‘position’
- Avoiding reality – not engaging in the actual problem itself. The reality of what’s not working takes a significant back seat to identifying who is at fault. As a result, chronic problems persist even after “the guilty” have been ‘punished’
- Fight! – similar to defending one’s ‘position’, this could include engaging sabotage, rumour-spreading, and various other political tactics, all aimed at self-preservation rather than the results the company was actually going for
- Be in the ‘background’– insulating from blame by withdrawing, and withholding contribution. When something goes wrong, they cover their tracks, and find the nearest foxhole
- Withholding creativity – not being open to taking the risks necessary to achieve outstanding performance, playing it safe, putting forth minimal effort as not to lose (or be blamed)
The sad news is that these tactics require huge amounts of time, energy, and resources. The tragic news is these tactics significantly reduce innovation, creativity and motivation.
The fantastic news is that as leaders we can dramatically shift this dynamic by focusing on reality and improvement rather than fault-finding.
The first step to achieving this is simply to change the questions that are employed when things do not go as planned:
A blaming leader/approach might ask…
Who’s in charge of that?
What happened, who missed it?
How can I prove it was not anything to do with me?
How do I shield my department?
How can I avoid embarrassment or not be a target?
A learning leader might ask…
What is the data?
What’s working and what isn’t?
What can we learn to improve/reduce the risk of this reoccurring?
What is the bigger picture here?
What can I take responsibility for?
How would any adjustments fit with our purpose?
Leaders who choose to ask the second set of questions create high performing companies in which teams learn from experience, put themselves forward and take personal courage in their contribution.
Those questions empower teams to be accountable in the truest sense of the word – taking responsibility for their part and being part of creating the next steps, giving the best of themselves in the process.
Stepping out of blame does not mean tolerating poor performance, turning one’s back to hard challenges, or avoiding difficult conversations — just the opposite. It means fearlessly confronting disappointing results and handling the challenges head-on with openness, calm and curiosity.
So the next time you are tempted to go on a fault-finding expedition, take a moment to ask yourself this question:
What behaviours am I role modelling to my team?