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How to Counteract Blame Culture

May 17, 2022
How to Counteract Blame Culture
What is blame culture?


In today’s article, we explore what it looks like within an organisation, why we place blame in the first place, and four strategies to rectify signs of blame culture within your team.

Blame is a human instinct

According to the Harvard Business Review, we humans operate with something called a ‘fundamental attribution bias’.

We tend to believe that what others do is a direct representation of who they are, rather than a combination of factors influencing their behaviour.

We also like a neat solution. That means that in the face of a disaster if we can place 100% of the responsibility on one individual and file it under ‘human error’, we’ll usually choose this option instead of examining the context and events leading up to their actions.

There’s an even more scientific reason. Courtesy of our old friend (and sometimes not such a friend), the amygdala!

It’s the part of the brain that processes emotions like fear and anger. It’s also where negative events are handled, and blame is created. 

Unlike the prefrontal cortex, which processes good things and tends to conclude that they’ve happened by accident, the amygdala is pretty sure that bad things happen on purpose. That means someone is behind it.

This process is so instinctive, that we often assign blame without knowing it, and arbitrarily choose the person closest to the negative event.

So, let’s explore what’s happening when the amygdala takes over and creates a culture of blame at work.

Why it’s a problem:
  • Blame kills accountability. If we’re always placing responsibility somewhere else, we don’t examine our own behaviour and work to improve and ensure a better outcome next time.

  • It gets in the way of learning. Naming and shaming for every mistake can be humiliating, and cause that person to avoid trying again or asking a ‘silly question’. This prevents them from learning and developing.
  • It could create silos in your team. If a certain individual or group is often the target of blame culture, they can become isolated, which fractures your team and prevents holistic collaboration.
  • Employee voice is being silenced. You want your employees to be able to speak up. Otherwise, you’re in the dark about problems, needs and the culture of your company.
  • Turnover may increase. We all know that a high attrition rate can stunt business growth and evolution. Blame culture is likely to force team members out in search of better experiences.

  • Productivity will drop. Poorer interpersonal relationships, lower job satisfaction and a feeling that you ‘can't get anything right’ all contribute to a loss of motivation. This leads to a poorer quality of work and less being accomplished overall.
  • Decision escalation. This is when employees continually refer to their manager for decisions. This takes up more of your time and is not maximising your team's skills. Blame culture can make escalation more likely to happen.

  • Lack of innovation. Creative aspects of work require a safe space, to throw the metaphorical spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. Fear of being blamed for a poor idea can suffocate innovative thinking.
What you can do

So, you want to know how you can weed out any blame culture within your team, and change the game? Here are four tactics you can put in place:

  1. A regular ‘Lessons Learned’ briefing. You can call this whatever you want to, but the point is to talk about your mistakes. Yes, yours. This creates a culture where everyone understands that mistakes are a necessary part of learning, nothing to be ashamed of, and can actually be empowering. This way, fear of blame is removed and colleagues are less likely to deflect blame toward one another.

  2. Look at the process, not the person. Instead of choosing someone to pin the blame on, look at the whole team, project, steps and objectives to identify what’s not lining up. Somewhere, you’ll find a bug. When you fix it, you’ll make sure mistakes like this are avoided in future.

  3. Ask how you contributed to the issue. No, you’re not always part of the cause. But, by assessing what you could have done to prevent a problem, you may identify a safety net to catch similar ones.

  4. Empower your employees. Many of these issues can be rectified by boosting confidence among your team. Celebrate what they’ve done right, be constructive around mistakes or failures, and reinforce their ability to nail it in future.
    Project belief, not blame.

In the end, the key is remembering that blame is different to responsibility. 

Taking accountability for our mistakes and shortfalls is the best way to grow as individuals and fine-tune collaboration processes.

Instinctively looking for somewhere to place blame, however, circumvents this whole process of learning.

If you can reframe your collective mindset around mistakes to make it constructive, communicative and forward-thinking, you’ll counteract all the obstacles created by an unhealthy blame culture.

For more information on sustaining an inclusive culture for all of your employees, check out our free D&I in the workplace handbook, available to download now.

Read our Whitepaper on How to Elevate Diversity & Inclusion within your Team

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