Toxic: Dealing With A Culture Of Blame

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Editor’s Note: This post kicks off a new series called Toxic in which we’ll be looking at how to deal with the dynamics of unhealthy work environments.

It’s human nature to want to assign blame. Since the dawn of time we’ve assigned unseen causes to effects that we can’t explain. We even find ways of off-loading blame for our vices (the devil made me do it!) and our shortcomings (it’s just my nature.)

Much of this blame-shifting is in the effort to protect ourselves. We don’t like being seen by others as a failure, or as lacking self-control. There are sometimes consequences for failure that affect our job, our family and even our health. We also don’t like to see ourselves as a failure, and we do everything we can to protect our desired self-image.

On a personal level, a lack of accountability can be deadly to our efforts to do brilliant work. When this blame-shifting infiltrates an organization, it can become toxic. It erodes collaboration and trust and causes everyone to waste energy in the attempt to avoid being left without a chair when the music stops. Less and less effort is spent on the attempt to do brilliant work and more effort is spent on the attempt to appear to do brilliant work. It’s a subtle, but critical distinction.

When this blame-shifting infiltrates an organization, it can become toxic.

A few signs that a culture of blame may have infiltrated your team include:

  • A general lack of accountability on the team. If it’s difficult to identify the single point of accountability for delivering a project, or if there seems to be ambiguity about responsibilities on the team, it’s possible that some of this is the result of a culture of blame.
  • Hesitancy to admit mistakes, or frequent attempts to cover them up rather than fix them. Everyone makes mistakes. If your team is really stretching itself to do great work, it will probably make many of them. But mistakes need to be dealt with, not disguised.
  • An overall lack of commitment to the excellence of the work or the needs of the client/organization. Some of the most toxic blame-shifting is the kind that involves blaming the client or customer for the problems the team is facing. When this happens, it can cause a down-shift in the team’s drive to go the extra mile.
  • Frequent “whispers in the hallway” or gossip. These little side conversations are like cracks in a dam. Every one of them erodes the integrity of the team slightly and puts the entire team at risk.

So how can we deal with this toxic culture of blame? Each culture is nuanced, complex and highly unique, but here are a few thoughts for leaders and would-be leaders:

  • Make sure that every project has clear accountability, metrics and rails. If expectations are clear throughout the process, it’s very difficult to shift blame.
  • Be the first to admit mistakes and take responsibility for them. This is especially crucial for leaders. The leader gets to take the most arrows, even if that means taking some for the team. If you’re a team member, set the example for the team by holding yourself to a higher standard.
  • Squash the blame game. If you notice a conversation shifting to the subject of blame, shift the topic or re-affirm where accountability for the project rests. No gossip, no whispers.
  • Don’t play along. To be prolific, brilliant and healthy you must maintain an accurate assessment of your successes and failures so that you can continue growing in your efforts. Self-delusion does you no good.

Everyone makes mistakes, and sometimes these mistakes are harmful to the team’s efforts. But developing a strong culture of transparency and accountability will focus your teams efforts where they belong: doing brilliant work. Do your best to establish accountability both personally and as a team and squash the culture of blame before it squashes you.

(In the next article in the series, we’ll discuss how to deal with glory hogs. Subscribe for free to get articles as they’re released.)

Have you ever been a part of a culture of blame? How did you deal with it?

Todd Henry

Todd Henry

Positioning himself as an “arms dealer for the creative revolution”, Todd Henry teaches leaders and organizations how to establish practices that lead to everyday brilliance. He is the author of five books (The Accidental Creative, Die Empty, Louder Than Words, Herding Tigers, The Motivation Code) which have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he speaks and consults across dozens of industries on creativity, leadership, and passion for work.

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