The ‘instinct’ to blame, undermines our ability to innovate.

For many, the first reaction to seeing a mistake or failure is to assume that the person or item nearest to it, is negligent in some way – and therefore should be blamed.

Harvard Business School did a survey with company executives and they found that the executives believe that between 2% and 5% of failures in their organisations justified someone being blamed – but when asked how often people were blamed they admitted it was between 70% and 90%. What this shows is there is a strong desire, an instinctive behaviour, to blame someone – often before understanding what has really happened. I would like to add that I believe that once a senior exec has apportioned blame, they then find it very difficult to eat humble pie and retract that blame.

I use the word ‘instinctive’ because what is interesting, in most cases people genuinely believe, at the time, that the person nearest to the failure is responsible, simply because of their proximity to the failure. There have been numerous studies to support this.

If, for example, you left two dogs in your kitchen, when you returned one dog was lying by a chewed-up slipper, your automatic assumption would be that the dog next to the slipper was guilty, even though the other dog may be guilty and walked away.

It is satisfying to have a culprit, someone to blame, because it makes things much simpler. In business and especially politics, when there is a failure, people are looking for answers to allay fear, alleviate pressure and maintain public confidence; there is an urgency to find a culprit, so the first “bad apple” gets the blame.

A culture of instant blame can lead to what some refer to as a ‘circular firing squad’ where everyone ends up blaming everybody else. This is very destructive.

Some managers think they are being tough on mistakes, by blaming quickly, dishing out punishment. Some believe it will make their staff more diligent. There may be some truth in this if we are managing people that are carrying out simple tasks, because it is easy to identify the mistake, e.g. sloppiness, and then blame.

However, we live in, not a simple, but a complex world and the root causes of failure are often much harder to identify.

If, for example, you get into work and your computer isn’t working properly; is it the hardware? the software? the internet connection? Whatever it is, you will be frustrated and often it is your IT support team that will get it in the neck, because they are closest to the issue. You may then realise you haven’t plugged in a cable properly.

With a blame culture, people become afraid to admit their errors. They will do what they can to hide their mistakes, which means that the opportunity to learn from those mistakes is lost. Hiding mistakes means that failure can reoccur, with potential tragic consequences.

If we allow a blame culture to persist we will destroy openness and trust. If we destroy openness and trust, we undermine two of the key elements required for innovation.

So, we need to create a culture where people are not scared to admit mistakes. We need to encourage people to come forward when they make mistakes, without fear of punishment. We need people to see that we can all learn from failure and mistakes.

When we focus on blame our perception narrows; we stop thinking openly. And in investigating mistakes we must have an open mind. We need to consider all possible causes.

One simple way to do this is to ask a range of people, without influencing them, for their perspective on what may have caused the failure. This will generate a wide range of suggestions, often contradictory. The advantage of having contradictory responses is that it shows it is difficult to pre-judge a situation and apportion blame. This approach, searching for the facts, encouraging open discussion, with a focus on learning from those mistakes will send an empowering message to your people.

In a complex world failure is often down to the systems we adopt rather than people that use them. Many systems are too complex, some people are overwhelmed by the systems they have to use, some are even given systems to follow that discourage the need to think. So where should the blame lie?

Most of the opportunities for innovation in organisations are what we call ‘incremental innovation’. Lots of small changes and improvements.  A great source for incremental innovation is failure and mistakes.

If we approach failure with an open mind, do not instinctively blame, do not punish genuine mistakes, we will empower our people to solve many of the problems we face – and that is innovation.

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