A culture of blame? Or a culture of accountability? You have the power to decide

A man pointing his finger directly at the camera.

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Unless you wear noise cancelling headphones from the minute you walk into the airport, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid listening to the conversations of others while traveling.  

Whether it’s in the queue to go through security; waiting at the gate before the flight; lining up to board; or sitting on the actual plane, although I would never say I’m intentionally eavesdropping, I’m curious by nature, so I can’t help overhearing what people are talking about in front, behind, or next to me. Besides, the concept of social distancing is now pretty much a thing of the past. 

I was sitting behind two people on a flight the other day who I could only assume were colleagues going to a quarterly company off-site. As we waited for the plane to push back, one of them asked sarcastically, “So who do you think is going to get thrown under the bus this time around?”. 

The other laughed before replying, “There’s bound to be a few of us in the firing line given that we’re way behind budget, we lost ‘you know who’ as a client, we missed out on that tender that we probably shouldn’t have even gone for in the first place, and there were all those resignations following the acquisition, too”. 

At least they were being cautious not to name names. That would have been somewhat inappropriate. 

Until I finally decided to put on my headphones, I heard them reminisce about their previous meeting and about who had been blamed for what, who had passed the buck to avoid any responsibility, and who had drawn the short straw and had been the scapegoat. Evidently that person had since left the business. 

What I found particularly amusing was the fact that they had both fallen victim to their own blame culture, since they themselves were now finger pointing, too, perhaps without even realising it. 

As I stared out the window, I had a flashback to my grade three primary school teacher who would constantly remind us that if you point your finger at someone else accusingly, then there are usually three fingers pointing right back at you. 

I know you’re trying it right now. See? It’s true! 

Whilst the research shows that as humans, we are naturally wired to blame other people or external circumstances when things don’t quite go according to plan, when this trend enters a work environment, things can quickly become pretty toxic. 

If you’ve ever found yourself trapped in an organisation endorsing a blame culture, you’d know what it feels like to not trust anyone; to constantly be walking on eggshells; to feel vulnerable walking into any meeting; to be convinced that everyone’s out to get you; and above all, to eventually completely lose interest in your job. 

Many years ago, I experienced exactly that. On my second day, I sensed something was wrong and I knew I’d made a terrible decision. At the end of the third week, I resigned, at which point my boss blamed me for not being resilient enough and assured me that I probably would “never get another job in this town again”. 

How comforting. 

Needless to say, that job has never even appeared on my resume, but I’ve never forgotten those three weeks in a career spanning nearly three decades. 

Whether you are a senior leader, middle manager, or aspiring leader, think about the culture that you play an important role in creating.

Are you (perhaps inadvertently) creating a culture of blame or are you striving to create a culture of responsibility and accountability? 

Unfortunately, over the last few years, as we all experienced Zoom fatigue and lost that feeling of connectivity reinforced by working alongside one another and meeting face-to-face, it became very easy for a blame culture to creep into the day to day of a remote workforce. Blaming a colleague who may have had to have been let go; passing the buck to someone else on the call and then going off camera to avoid even virtual eye contact; or perhaps choosing not to dial into the call at all, in fear of being accused or humiliated by another disembodied voice.  

When employees blame one another and continually deflect responsibility, this can lead to a very selfish and highly disengaged team with incredibly low morale. 

Blame culture (like any other workplace culture) starts at the top of the food chain. So, if you can sense any type of toxicity infiltrating your organisation arising from constant deflection and finger pointing, you have the power to stop it in its tracks. 

One way to create a culture of accountability and responsibility is to start thinking about what might need tweaking in the process or ‘the system’, as opposed to wondering who is to blame. When individuals feel empowered and accountable, as opposed to paranoid and anxious, they might even learn to embrace the power of learning from their mistakes as opposed to dreading the humiliation of being blamed for something going wrong. 

If we go back to the earlier scenario shared by my travel companions, they were already preparing for a blame game to play out at their upcoming meeting even though it’s virtually impossible to blame a single person for the fact that a team falls under budget or to accuse one member of the team for losing a client or not winning a tender. Instead, the leadership team should encourage the team to work as a group and plan together for how to avoid similar situations unraveling in the future. 

Leading organisational psychologists emphasise that a blame culture endorses criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling – a toxic concoction of four of the most destructive behaviours in human relationships.

Research also shows that when blame, accusation and cover ups are replaced with trust, collaboration and accountability, then team members will, in turn, feel more confident, empowered, and committed to the cause. 

Would you rather foster a culture where your team feels confident, supported, aligned, trusted and accepted, or where social structures are broken causing individuals to feel angry, powerless, vulnerable, and constantly at fault? 

It’s still important not to ignore mistakes or shortcomings or let them get swept under the carpet. Burying your head in the sand and pretending everything’s fine isn’t the best cultural strategy either.

Remember that by promoting accountability and supporting the need to learn from mistakes, you are also endorsing ongoing professional development. 

And of course, if an individual has made (more than likely) a completely innocent mistake that has caused a bit of a hiccup or setback, then the best approach is to address this privately and never in front of others.

Coaching opportunities like this are more likely to lead to greater self-reflection and learning as opposed to the humiliation of being thrown under a bus in front of their peer group. You also don’t want everyone living in fear wondering when it’s going to be their turn to be kicked in the guts. After all, if they see you publicly shaming one of their colleagues, then the anxiety of waiting for their turn becomes untenable. 

A culture of blame often leads to a culture of fear, at which point it’s pretty much impossible for a leader to turn the ship around. 

Remember, hellomonday can provide support to every leader, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, and ideally helping leaders understand the importance of preventing a blame culture from creeping into their workplace. 

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