Blame in the Workplace: A Deep Dive into Its Impact and How to Overcome It
As a podcast host, I recently had the pleasure of hosting an enlightening conversation with Dustin Staiger, a creative professional turned workplace culture expert. Our discussion revolved around a pervasive issue in today’s work environment – blame. This blog post aims to share the insights from that conversation, shedding light on the detrimental effects of blame and how we can work towards creating healthier, more productive workplaces.
The Birth of a Focus: Blame in the Workplace
Dustin’s journey into this area of focus is as intriguing as the topic itself. With a background in advertising and marketing, his interest was piqued while working with a company that partnered with Steelcase, a global leader in office furniture. He began to explore the impact of the physical office environment on creativity, which led him to uncover other factors that impede creativity, productivity, and innovation in the workplace. One such factor was blame.
The Blame Game: Its Impact on Workplaces
Blame, as Dustin discovered, plays a significant role in creating toxic work environments. It hinders psychological safety, affecting employee attraction and retention. He shared his journey of uncovering why people are addicted to blame and how it affects workplaces in his book, “Blame This Book.”
I added to the discussion by sharing my experience with a large global brand that had a culture of seeking 100% certainty before making decisions. This culture of blame hindered innovation and growth. The brand attempted to change the mindset and embrace a 70-80% level of certainty without blame, but faced pushback from employees who were accustomed to the blame culture.
The Importance of Accountability Over Blame
Dustin emphasized that blaming someone for a failure or mistake is not the same as holding them responsible or accountable. He shared a story about Thomas Watson, the CEO of IBM, who refused to accept the resignation of a salesperson who had cost the company $1 million. Instead of firing the salesperson, Watson saw it as an investment in their education and an opportunity for them to learn from their mistakes.
Blame Culture: A Hindrance to Problem-Solving
Blame culture within organizations hinders problem-solving and leads to recurring failures. Dustin suggests implementing blameless postmortems, similar to military after-action reviews, to objectively analyze failures, understand the root causes, and make necessary changes for improvement.
Blame and Scapegoating: A Historical Perspective
We also explored how blame is often used as a defense mechanism to avoid taking responsibility for one’s actions. We highlighted the historical and societal roots of scapegoating, where societies would choose a person to bear the blame and violence of the entire community, ultimately restoring peace. However, modern justice systems aim to hold individuals accountable rather than resorting to scapegoating.
The Blame Game in Personal Relationships
Blame can hinder the ability to rebuild a positive connection in personal relationships. The phenomenon of “kicking the can,” where one party tries to shift the blame onto the other, often projecting their own faults onto them, can lead to contempt and resentment, creating toxic dynamics in both personal and workplace relationships.
The Tall Poppy Syndrome and Blame
We touched upon the “tall poppy syndrome,” a cultural phenomenon where individuals who stand out or achieve success are targeted and cut down by others. Blame becomes a tool in this process, as it is used to find fault and diminish the perceived tall poppy.
Blame Culture in Society
Dustin discussed the blame culture that exists in our society, giving an example of the incident at the Cincinnati Zoo where a child ended up in the gorilla habitat and the gorilla had to be shot to protect the child. Despite experts like Jane Goodall and Jack Hanna supporting the zoo’s decision, there was still public outcry and merchandise available in support of the gorilla, Harambe.
Overcoming Blame: Developing Empathy and Clarity
Dustin emphasized the need to develop empathy instead of resorting to blame. He suggested that business owners and leaders can change the culture in their teams by implementing tools like blameless autopsies or postmortems. He also mentioned an assessment by Amy Edmondson for evaluating psychological safety in the organization. Creating clarity is another important step, where blame is defined as resentment and responsibility and accountability are defined as taking ownership of one’s actions and allowing others to hold us accountable.
The Power of Awareness and Inclusivity
Dustin shared how awareness of blame has helped him in his personal life, as his family now holds him accountable when he starts to blame. He highlighted the importance of inclusivity and challenging assumptions in creating a blame-free culture. By using tools like after-action reports and root cause analysis, organizations can identify issues and find solutions without resorting to blame.
To learn more about this topic, Dustin’s book “Blame: This Book” is available on Amazon. It provides a deeper dive into the culture of blame and offers practical solutions to overcome it.
Dustin Staiger is the principal partner at The People Brand. There he works with clients to unearth the essence of their businesses. This empowers their culture to work in harmony with their brand, which attracts their best employees and customers. Along with his team at The People Brand, Dustin has consulted Fortune 100 firms—providing consulting and training for clients such as British Petroleum, ConocoPhillips, and Align Technology.
Dustin developed communications for the recovery effort to the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, serving on a team with U.S. Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu, and producing reports for President Barack Obama. He helped develop a program to verify the competency of oil and gas companies to avert future disasters. In addition, he worked in the commercial interiors industry, promoting research regarding the impact of workplace design on innovation and productivity.