Blame is arguably the most problematic offender in a safety culture. It touches the core of the error culture because it undermines trust. Thus, it is worth giving some thought to. In this and the next few blog articles, I will address individual aspects without claiming to tackle the topic holistically. Rather, the discussion here is intended to provide food for thought and impetus for all those who have set out to put the noble goal of a fear-free culture into practice.
It is the instrument to achieve this goal. It is one of the currently hotly debated leadership topics. The advantages associated with it are being made palatable to us almost obtrusively with many well-intentioned appeals. The call is unmistakable: "Move forward!" But why is there a lack of implementation? Appeals do not help us to do justice to the matter. It is much more helpful to know what happens to us when we are confronted with a mistake. When we have an idea of what our head presents to us as an idea, imagination, or instruction for action, when others do not fulfill our expectations that we have of them.
Leaders who are strongly committed to their values are particularly vulnerable
Let me begin this post with a reference to the last blog article. There, I addressed the fact that we don't all react the same way when we're under stress. As a leader, being confronted with a mistake that has a negative impact in one's area of responsibility is associated with stress. Depending on the tendency inherent in our personality architecture, the reaction varies.
The error is a special challenge for all those who feel particularly committed to their personal values. These are managers who have high expectations of the quality of their work, who are committed and to whom responsible action is very important. It is not surprising that these are virtues that are common among managers. A mistake has no place in this mental predisposition because it does not satisfy the implicit expectation these superiors have of the others. It requires the others to be perfect for them.
A claim that is mentally anchored in this way leads superiors, unnoticed and unintentionally, to leave the appreciative position to the fallible person. They elevate themselves above them by making them only conditionally okay or not okay at all. The accusation is then the expression of this devaluing attitude. The damage to the relationship is done before a factual classification of the circumstances has had even the slightest chance.
Those who are committed to their own values are particularly susceptible to unreflected accusations. Such leaders do not personally find it easy to assume the leadership role in an organization that values psychological safety and sees error as a learning opportunity, indeed as the driver of profitable further development. For leaders with such a tendency, every mistake becomes a tough training session in self-control.
A broader view helps
What has been completely left out of this process so far is the question of whether the accusation is factually justified at all. The matter was not even an issue. Only the person was an issue. A relationship was damaged without knowing whether there was a reason for it at all. Too bad, then with it much trust was destroyed. Possibly for nothing.
The whole thing happened so fast that there was no time to investigate what the reasons for the unintended result (i.e. mistake) could be. (We always assume that neither willful intent nor gross negligence is involved. Errors of this category have to be handled with other gloves). Open and thus unanswered are the questions about the systemic influences, the contributory factors.
Since we know that in complex work situations unintended outcomes can occur even though everyone has done everything right, the reaction of blaming the other is completely incomprehensible. It does not do justice to the matter and is dishonest, because it ignores the entire context in which the fallible action occurred. And yet it happens again and again. Only because becoming aware of a mistake triggers a mental process in executives with the aforementioned tendency. A process that takes place in the executive him or herself and which has nothing to do with the matter at all.
Do you know your exposure?
Certainly, some readers have already become acquainted with this problem as a leader. If you would like to know more about it and especially your personal exposure in this matter, then this can be dealt with a personality profile of PCM (Process Communication Model). Contact me if you have the time and interest to do so.