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Why Blaming Is Unhelpful

Cblame It’s natural: It’s tempting to screw things up and blame others instead of taking responsibility yourself. But blame is also corrosive. Blaming can weaken team cohesion. It makes people less likely to admit mistakes, and therefore organizations less likely to learn from them. Research published in 2015 showed that Shaggy culture (“It wasn’t me who made it”) showed up in stock prices. Companies that managers point to external factors to explain their failures perform worse than those that blame themselves.

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Some industries have long recognized the drawbacks of troubleshooting. The aviation industry’s proud record of reducing accidents is partly reflected in the no-fault process for investigating crashes and near misses. The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates accidents in the U.S., has made clear that its role is not to hold people accountable, but to find out what went wrong and make recommendations to avoid a repeat.

There are similar lessons in healthcare. When something goes wrong in the medical environment, the compensation system for patients varies from country to country. Some countries, such as the United Kingdom, rely on legal procedures that must find fault. Other countries, such as Sweden, do not require assigning responsibility and compensating patients if the harm suffered is considered “avoidable”. A UK parliamentary committee report last year strongly recommended abandoning a system based on proving clinical negligence: “It is expensive, adversarial and promotes individual blame rather than collective learning.”

The motivation to learn from mistakes is especially strong in aviation and healthcare, where safety is paramount and lives are at stake. But they’re also there when the stakes are lower. That’s why software engineers and developers often perform “blameless postmortems” to investigate, for example, what went wrong if a website crashed or a server malfunctioned.

Embracing blamelessness is obviously worrisome. What if that damned site keeps crashing and it’s the same person’s fault? After all, sometimes, blame is deserved. The idea of ​​a “just culture” is a framework proposed by psychologist James Reason in the 1990s to address concerns that the incompetent and malevolent would get away with it. The line drawn by the UK aviation regulator between honest mistakes and other types of mistakes is a good place to start. It promises a culture in which people “will not be punished for actions, omissions or decisions commensurate with their experience and training”. This narrows the room for blame, but doesn’t completely eliminate it.

There are two bigger problems with this tendency to try and shake off the blame. The first is that it takes a lot of effort. Blame is cheap and quick: “It’s Nigel” is said in just a second, and it’s true. Logging errors and making sure processes change accordingly requires more structure. Blameless postmortems, for example, have long been part of Google’s culture, with its templates, comments, and discussion groups.

The second problem is the boss. People in power are especially prone to blaming each other. A recent paper by academics at the University of California, San Diego, and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore found that people in positions of authority are more likely to believe that others have a choice and to blame failure on them.

For example, in one experiment, people were randomly assigned the roles of supervisor and worker, and were shown a transcript of an audio recording that contained errors; they also saw an apology from the transcriptionist, saying that unstable Internet connections meant Unable to complete the task normally. Those in a supervisory role were more likely to agree that the transcriptionist was responsible for the error and want payment denied. Power and punishment go hand in hand.

Blame also seems to be contagious. In a 2009 paper, researchers asked volunteers to read news articles about political failures and then write about their own failures. Participants who read about politicians blaming special interests for their screw-ups were more likely to blame others for their failures; those who read about politicians taking responsibility were more likely to take responsibility for their inadequacies. Bosses are the most visible people in a company; when they point fingers, others point fingers too. If your company has a culture of blame, then therein lies the problem.

Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work:
How to Unleash Creativity in the Workplace (January 12)
How to Have the Most Productive Workday of Your Life (January 4)
How to Get the Most Out of LinkedIn (December 20)

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