We’re conditioned to subscribe to the belief that we shouldn’t submit to a ‘blame culture’. But, like a lot of ideals, it’s a shorthand characterisation of a much more complex construction. It seems more likely that, what we actually mean is that we shouldn’t stand by and allow an environment to flourish that lets people unfairly deflect responsibility to others when things go wrong. The counterpoint to this behaviour is a tendency to withhold the sharing of credit when things go well and, even worse, to falsely claim credit for achievement or authorship of ideas. You know what I’m talking about. And you know who I’m talking about.
But blind abstinence from blaming, or a total rejection of the voicing of a recognition of accountability is also damaging. From an early age, we’re taught to ‘own up’, to take responsibility for our actions and face the consequences when bad or ill-considered behaviour elicits unfavourable outcomes. This is ultimately an empowering position to be in. If nothing is your fault then, equally, you don’t have the power to improve anything. Recognition that your actions have in some way influenced the world means that your choices matter. If you understand that your choices matter, then you consider your options and actions more carefully.
So blame should be accepted, provided that it is dispensed felicitously and fairly. Blame is not a moral judgement, it’s simply acknowledgement of the source of liability. If your actions, or the actions of others, have resulted in poor outcomes then it’s important that this is identified, in order that it doesn’t happen again. And it’s generally pretty self-evident why something went wrong in the first place, and supressing the instinct to call it out seems counter productive. So an environment that recognises accountability is to be encouraged, because it works both ways. If you get something wrong then you acknowledge that deflecting blame is unacceptable, and you cannot simply shrug it off safe in the knowledge that no one will call it out. But it must also mean that where something was not your responsibility, or a collective responsibility, then you are not implicated, or you share the consequences. The flip side to this of course is that credit must also be apportioned with equal rigour and alacrity.
Environments that purport to ‘not operating a blame culture’ are denying basic human impulses. And it’s almost impossible to police. It will always go on behind closed doors. Better to acknowledge that everyone is accountable for their actions but strive to enforce fairness in apportioning both blame and credit. And importantly, recognition that blame does not necessarily come with reprisal unless the intent was in some way malevolent. In fact, an environment where you can openly get things wrong is one that will foster candour, creativity and innovation. Progress is built on a willingness to get things wrong. An environment where you are accountable and recognised is likely to be a much more positive place than one where there is a pretence of safety that encourages low standards and fails to recognise people’s efforts.
So next time someone tells you they don’t operate a blame culture – be suspicious!