The Blame-Oriented Corporate Culture

Something just went wrong; really wrong.

What's the first instinct you and others have?

In many company cultures (and in many family, marriage or parent/child relationship cultures), the first order of business is to decide whom to blame.

Much of corporate politics (not to mention governmental politics) is based on this principle.

"I don't want to support Initiative X because if it fails, I don't want to be blamed."

"I agree Y is a problem, but it's not my job to solve Problem Y." (Read: "I'm not to blame, so I'm not getting involved.")

Three problems stem from this approach.

First, deciding whom to blame for a problem consumes a lot of time and energy.

Second, problems tend to persist because more time is devoted to assigning blame than to solving the damn problem.

Third, having blame be a part of the culture engenders fear.

Here's how to handle such a situation as a leader of an organization.

The "blame first, solutions second" approach reduces organizational performance by reducing team work, problem solving and continuous improvement.

To rectify the situation, shift to a "solutions first" approach.

At some point you do need to figure out how this happened, but first focus everyone on solving the immediate problem.

Once the immediate problem has been solved, the focus is NOT "blame second." Instead, it's "long-term solutions second."

In other words, the alternative to "blame first, solutions second" is actually "short-term solutions first, long-term solutions second."

That last paragraph is a profound one. Please re-read it a few times, as most Fortune 500 CEOs do not grasp that point.

After you find a solution to the initial problem or crisis, instead of assigning blame as a means of allocating punishment, focus on how to prevent the problem from recurring. This is the long-term solution.

Problems happen in business all the time. If you don't like having to solve problems, don't go into business. To run a business well, don't allow recurring problems to persist. Solve them one time, and be done with it.

"One and done" - that's the advice I give to my CEO clients. Solve a problem once, and be done with it forever.

So after the initial crisis has passed, you want to do an analysis of what happened, what can be learned from it, and what systemic changes can be made to prevent the same problem from ever occurring again.

At academic medical institutions after a patient dies or has an adverse outcome, a "Morbidity and Mortality" conference is held to learn from the experience and prevent it from recurring. The focus is non-punitive.

After members of the U.S. military conduct a training exercise, they hold an "After Action Review" meeting to focus on discovering what the unit needs to do differently next time to achieve better performance.

When an Olympic or professional-caliber sports team loses a major game, video recordings of the team's performance are studied and analyzed to learn from them. The following weeks and months of practice are based on improving those areas to prevent recurring problems.

I firmly believe a solutions-oriented corporate culture outperforms the "blame first" culture in the long run.

What do you do if you buy into this approach but aren't the CEO?

First, use the solutions-oriented approach in your area of responsibility. If your company has a "blame first" culture, that doesn't mean you have to use that approach within your department.

You can play the "blame first" approach with your boss if you have to, but shield that from your direct reports. Focus on solutions and improving performance instead of blame and punishment.

Second, if you don't have any direct reports, use a solutions-oriented approach in your personal area of responsibility. When something goes wrong, even if you are being blamed, ignore the blame. Focus on how you'd personally prevent the problem from recurring.

Third, when choosing employers and where you build a long-term career, pay attention to the corporate culture. Solution-focused people tend not to enjoy blame-oriented cultures.

Innovative organizations that take calculated risks and make bold moves often have failures. It's a part of the process of innovation. If "failures" are seen as things to be blamed for as opposed to opportunities to learn from, nobody is going to want to take any risks.

The innovative people will either leave or refuse to be innovative.

In your own career, decide what kind of environment you prefer, then seek it out. In addition, build the kind of culture you want within your area of responsibility.

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