“When you blame others, you give up your power to change.”
— Dr. Robert Anthony

Have you ever felt relieved when somebody else was to blame for something that went terribly wrong in your organization? Did you feel as if you had dodged a bullet? If you have, chances are good that you are working in a culture of blame, and you might be part of the problem.

Over the years different clients have approached me, saying that their work environments are rife with complaining and finger-pointing. They have asked how to best deal with such cultures.

Simply, you don’t deal with this type of culture. If you are the leader and have the power, you change it. If you are thrust into such a culture without the power to change it, you need to do whatever you can to help turn it around.

Finding the Real Culprit is Never Easy

William Frank Diedrich is a speaker, executive coach, and the author of Beyond Blaming: Unleashing Power and Passion in People and Organizations. In a recent article, titled, “Transcending the Blaming Culture,” he wrote about one of the major problems of this mindset. “We think that whoever is standing closest to a problem must be to blame for it,” he wrote. “We are taken in by the illusion that there are simple, linear cause-and-effect relationships.”

Actually, most problems are not caused by these simple, linear relationships centered around people, but by more complicated disconnects between how processes work and what they are intended to accomplish. Blaming is so common because it can be seen as a simple solution to a complex problem. However, it rarely fixes anything.

Blaming Creates Its Own Problems

Blaming is not only ineffective—it can create its own set of problems. Diedrich says that a culture of blame and complaining can bring an organization to a stand-still, because those doing the blaming and complaining invest so much time and effort in “proving” that someone else is to blame, while those being blamed also spend significant time and effort justifying and defending themselves. “Imagine an organization full of people blaming, complaining, justifying, defending, and building cases against others,” Diedrich says. “When would the work get done?”

The “culture of blame” vs. a “culture of safety” is cited in innumerable references on improving quality and patient safety in health care. That’s because communication, trust and teamwork are the keys to creating an environment where improvement can take place. “The tendency to blame stifles communication,” Diedrich says. “It destroys trust and creates stress. Blaming creates an environment of fear.”

That fear is one of the greatest impediments to progress. One of quality guru W. Edwards Deming’s famous 14 Points was to “drive out fear.” He believed fear prevents people from acting in the best interests of the organization. And his view makes sense, because fear created by a blaming culture forces people to act in their own best interests foremost in order to survive. As Diedrich says, problems are not seen as challenges to overcome, but as opportunities to place blame elsewhere.

Turning the Culture Around

So how do you turn this around if you’re not the boss? You do it by being a vehicle that shifts the focus of the blame for things going wrong to where it belongs more than 95 percent of the time—on the way things are done, and not on the people who are doing them.

Here are a few tips:

Be the example

The first step is for you to stop complaining and finger-pointing if you are doing it yourself. Never let your people see you engaged in these behaviors. If you need to complain about something, do it with your jogging buddy or your dog. Get it all out somewhere else, and then leave it behind.

Don’t get caught up in the blaming behavior of others

Imagine a nurse complains to you that other nurses are continually failing to document the time of administering medications to patients, while he, of course, never fails to document these times. Instead of complaining to these other nurses, or blaming them, try asking the complaining nurse, “How do you think we could best change the process so that everyone properly documents medication administration every time like you are doing?”

Focus on system flaws rather than people flaws

The medication administration example above not only steered the complaining nurse’s comments away from blaming, but it put the problem in its proper perspective—something in the process itself is making it difficult for the nurses to ensure proper, safe care of the patient, so let’s fix the process. Your next statement, right after the preceding one, might be, “How can we make it easy for them to do the right thing for the patient?” In this way, you are making the complainer part of the solution and showing him that you are concerned with fixing the problem and not fixing the blame.

Make the distinction between accountability and ability to be blamed

Everyone has accountability for specific activities in an organization. However, in a culture of blame, this can be seen as having a target on your chest. You must make it clear when you consider someone’s accountability for an activity, you are counting on that person to have the knowledge to prevent problems, or to fix problems if they occur in that activity. When something does go wrong, treat it as a very public learning experience, rather than a blaming event. Make it clear to everyone that when you hold someone accountable, you regard them as the expert in helping the organization fix the problem, rather than a target of blame if something doesn’t go right.

Never kill the messenger

One of your best assets as a leading member of the team are people who are just as likely to share good news as bad news, so never punish those who have the courage to report something negative. If you make people afraid to bring bad news, they will be afraid, and you will likely hear only the good news. This can result in relatively small problems going unreported for so long that they become huge and far less manageable by the time you hear them or discover them on your own. Again, this is part of the concept of driving out fear.

Don’t feel blessed with success

One of the setups for failure is becoming too comfortable when things are going well. Remember, as I wrote back in September, today’s leaders need to be problem finders and encourage others to uncover problems. As I said then, problems that are hidden or ignored, or those that are festering and might be months or years away from being considered problems, cannot be solved. When they finally surface, it will create an opportunity for the cycle of blame to begin anew. Be a problem finder and make problem finders out of other people. This is another way to assure people they will not be “killed” for bearing the bad news.

Don’t allow blaming to reach beyond your department

I often hear from emergency department leaders that there are problems with moving their patients through the system, which can jeopardize patient safety and satisfaction. Patients sometimes wait hours to see a physician or nurse, and sometimes decide to just leave, resulting in lost admissions, lost revenue and sometimes even bad press. In a blaming culture, the blame spreads far and wide in these situations, from nurses to physicians in the ED to radiology and to the laboratory and beyond. When these problems exist, it is up to clinical leaders to again set the example by looking at the processes and seeking to work cooperatively and interdepartmentally on process issues, rather than focusing on complaining and blaming people in other areas. You need to be willing to work with everyone involved in the processes to help improve how things work, regardless of how many entities must be involved.

Create a culture of feedback

In July 2004 I wrote an article about the importance of creating an environment in which people are encouraged to give you feedback on your performance. You must also provide them with honest feedback, and encourage them to do the same among one another. This creates a more open environment that discourages complaining, blaming and taking sides. As I wrote before, fostering a culture of feedback by drawing attention to issues you are working on and keeping that attention focused will help you find, and continually improve on, your strengths. Continual feedback will keep you keenly aware of the effect that your actions have on others around you. It will also help prevent you from becoming a target of blame.

Putting it All Together

Not only is a culture of blame harmful to organizations, it is harmful to the people who must work in them. Kernan Manion, MD, is a psychiatrist and executive coach from North Carolina who specializes in burnout and stress. He provides people with services and education to help them deal with “disabling” occupational stress, wear-down and burnout, and helps them make essential changes to improve their work lives and redesign their careers. He says that blame is a form of anger venting and displacement of ownership.

The bottom line is this: Improvement and progress can’t happen in a blaming culture. Nobody is going to report a “near miss” on a patient if they think they or one of their trusted allies are going to be blamed for it. When it goes unreported, that opportunity for preventing the next actual adverse event will be gone, and the next time it might be a serious problem.

So help to create a culture where everyone is accountable and owns a piece of the process. Be the example and never participate in the culture of blame. Always steer the search for solutions back to the process and how to fix it. Make it clear to everyone that your definition of an accountable person is one who is answerable and responsible for being the expert on a subject, rather than the target when the arrows of blame are flung.

If you are not ultimately the one in charge, you may not be able to completely heal the blaming culture, but you can vastly improve the part you are working in, and perhaps become the example for the rest of the organization to follow.