Workplace blame culture

26 Feb 2024

McKacy Prince-Martin

Mistakes are inevitable in any work environment, as no one is perfect. Whilst we almost always accept this truth as the standard for ourselves, many professionals have little to no tolerance for mistakes made by others. Some employees practise a blame culture that inherently spreads through the organisation like a cancer.

The Oxford Review Encyclopaedia defines blame culture as an environment in which people, or groups/teams of people, are frequently singled out, blamed, or criticised and fault is apportioned for mistakes and errors made. It goes without saying that this significantly contributes to a hostile and toxic work environment.

According to a study done by MIT Sloan Management Review, employees indulge in blame culture in the workplace as a way of protecting their self-image and masking their own insecurities. Much of this stems from situations in which there is a lack of emotional support, empathy, and compassion amongst the team. Some managers have been known to blame “the individual”, as that is an easier course of action than auditing and improving failed systems and questionable processes. This culture also creates opportunities for scapegoating and callousness, as individuals who are blamed for something tend to reassign that blame to someone else lower on the institution’s hierarchy, or someone who has limited social capital in the environment. Sadly, no one is uncomfortable when blame is assigned to unpopular people.

Blame culture also creates processes which, often, do not offer constructive support or effective solutions, and consequently lead to individuals working in a self-preservative mindset. Some of the other more notable impacts include:
Psychological Distress: Employees constantly find themselves in the “line of fire” and this can lead to increased levels of stress and depression. Individuals may feel as if they need to walk on eggshells and this could damage self-esteem and possibly lead to long-term mental health and well-being implications.
Weakened Team Dynamics: The culture creates a dismissive atmosphere which undermines the levels of mutual respect and regard needed to maintain healthy relations. Additionally, the lack of accountability, coupled with continual harsh criticism, can lead to employees becoming reluctant to assume extra responsibility as they opt to “stay in their lane.” This further impedes the sharing of information and resources, which, in turn, can lead to another major workplace issue known as “Siloed Operations”.
Burnout: This point is self-explanatory. The mixture of failed systems and processes, lack of support and empathy, with constant critique, could cause employees to break under the weight of the experience. Even if employees can manage the workload, all of the human inter
actions needed to execute work, as well as reduced engagement and the guilt of shameful experiences for prolonged periods, would also lead to burnout.

The only viable question to be asked at this point is: How can blame culture be addressed? It can be addressed with the implementation of its exact opposite—no blame culture. The Oxford Reference Dictionary describes a no blame culture as the tolerance of mistakes within an organisation, providing that people learn from these mistakes. It is usually associated with empowerment and constant improvement.
No blame cultures tend to be driven by specific organisational characteristics that include but are not limited to, a shared understanding of complexity, honesty, integrity, accountability, and an all-round appreciation for the team. Leaders can start planting the seeds of a no blame culture by engaging in the following acts:
Identify, and in some instances, predict the signs of blame culture and manage them accordingly.
Lead and teach by example – Take the opportunity to share your own mistakes. This makes the leader more relatable, and subordinates are better able to appreciate his vision, direction, and rationale.
Trust employees with responsibility. This includes them making mistakes and correcting the same mistakes. Ensure that expectations and standards are explicit.
Blame culture is ingrained in our DNA, thus it would continue to prevail until and unless management and staff take a direct and purposeful approach against it. Both parties must prioritise building a culture of accountability, where mistakes are viewed as opportunities for learning, corrective action and improvement rather than occasions for gnashing teeth. Take this opportunity to reflect on your own workplace: Are there elements of blame culture present? Do you contribute to it? Instead of pointing fingers at the man across the table, or the man lower down the ladder, explore ways that you can change and improve the man in the mirror.

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