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How do you identify and replace a blame culture?

What is a blame culture?

A culture of blame can be found in all types of organisations and it doesn't just affect health and safety.  This type of culture can be detrimental to the organisation as a whole where employees are afraid to make mistakes and are more likely to cover them up. A blame culture is common in all different businesses, this can lead to a lack of productivity, wasted time, and hard feelings being created.

I have experienced this culture first hand and I am able to testify that it is no way to do business. I worked within a company of around fifty people as a manager and everyone lived in constant fear of the Managing Director. An autocratic leader who shouted, screamed and sacked staff at the drop of a hat. I had worked there for nine months when I was given a choice, mirror his management style or leave. You guessed it, I got out. As I write this post that business is currently going through liquidation. When something went wrong, as things often do, the MD would ask 'Who's fault is it?' This was inevitably followed by "sack them".

It's that one word that holds so much power and sets the tone for the whole culture  - 'who'. This is one of the most effective ways in which you can judge your own safety culture. When a senior manager within your organisation is made aware of a mistake, accident or error, look out for the first question is "how did that happen", "what was the cause" or "who's fault is it"?

How do you identify a blame culture?

  1. Failure to respond to issues raised by employees

  2. Forgetting to talk about Health & Safety, or turning it into a joke

  3. Failure to consult the workforce on decisions relating to Health & Safety

  4. Avoid an unjust blame culture, only discipline workers who take unnecessary risks

  5. People begin to cover up mistakes

  6. People often begin to fear being blamed

  7. They stop making suggestions or trying new things. When that happens, the pace of change and improvement slows down and the organisation ceases to offer anything new to its customers

  8. Arguments regarding responsibilities

  9. Critical Emails to managers regarding co-workers

  10. Mistakes are blamed on a specific person (The scapegoat)

  11. A general lack of accountability on the team

  12. Frequent gossip

So, we've established the basics as to what contributes towards a culture of blame, but there are a few points I want to expand on. Such as number five - when people cover up mistakes, it isn't always done with the most grace or expertise and once the mistake is found, the question which should be asked and answered (hopefully) honestly - Why? Why did that staff member feel the need to hide their mistake. I've been told this my entire life - everyone makes mistakes. And everyone does, it can't be helped, I've made more than I can remember but it's how we deal with those mistakes that makes all the difference. When people begin to fear being blamed for mistakes, it stifles creativity and productivity.

When arguments start happening, avoiding responsibility, emails and conversations slating colleagues, managers or both and people being unwilling to take accountability for their own actions or those of the people they manage, you will have found yourself in the middle of a blame culture.

With that in mind, how can we effect change within a blame culture?


  • Managers must take responsibility for the part they played in the situation.

  • When the leader is willing to accept blame, the remainder of the staff will see it as more acceptable to admit fault and follow suit.

  • Managers must be able to promote a culture of teamwork and creativity.

  • Share your mission with the team and clearly define the role each person plays in achieving the overall objective.

  • Use effective communication techniques which consider other perspectives and check assumptions before reacting.

  • Cultures will continually evolve, and attention must be paid to ensure that changes are positive.

  • Ask the correct questions.

Within every organisation and at every level the first steps towards a just, no blame culture mean taking responsibility and this should start with managers. In accepting responsibility for their own actions, as well as the actions of the people they manage, the first steps are taken in encouraging a no blame culture which promotes teamwork.

Through changing the language and communication techniques used to ones which consider the perspective of all those involved as well as prevent assumptions before reacting, you take necessary steps to building trust with your workforce. An office, particularly an office with a just, no blame culture will always see discussions taking place regarding the improvement of process. This is a good thing, it encourages creative thinking and increases productivity. This becomes a problem, however when discussions devolve into bickering and 'telling' on one another.

Remember, cultures continually change and evolve. The choice is yours as to whether these are positive or negative changes. Next up - What are the correct questions?

621,000 injuries occurred at work according to the Labour Force Survey.

What are the correct questions to avoid a blame culture?

Think about your result, whether it was an accident, mistake, near miss or the discovery of a covered up mistake. What is it you really want to happen after a mistake is made? Going back to the company I worked for, under constant fear that I could be dismissed at any minute on any given day. When something went wrong, the question was always 'WHO do I sack?'

If only a different question had been asked, everything might have been different. I may not have left in such a rush and the company may not be in the process of closing down.

  • What happened?

  • How can we improve procedure to prevent this happening again?

  • What should have happened?

  • What can we learn from this?

  • Is everyone okay?

While all of these are good questions to ask when something goes wrong, I just want to expand on the last one. Is everyone okay? This question shows compassion and that you care for your workforce, as well as building trust and encourages your workforce to speak up about what went wrong.

In summary...

It's human nature to want to assign blame when things go wrong but no one gains when members of your workforce are finding fault in each other rather than working towards the common goal of the organisation.

A blame culture often reflects poor autocratic leadership in which managers resort to blaming others when things go wrong, rather than take the responsibility for that which happens in your organisation. This is not meant as an attack but as a difficult truth which must be addressed as a culture of blame reduces creativity and productivity yet increases negative feeling and staff turnover.

I hope you have found this piece helpful, if you have any questions please feel free to drop me a message!

Speak Soon,
Danny

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