July 3, 2010

Moving Beyond The Blame Game

Leaders have a choice about the messages they convey to their followers—they can empower people to take ownership and sometimes risk, or they can promote “CYA” as the corporate mantra.

This is the subject of a new article in Psychology Today (July/August 2010), “Just Don’t Do It,” by Dr. Art Markman.

The article provides an explanation of how people fall into the trap of risk-aversion. Essentially, when the outcome of an action causes trouble, the person performing the action is assumed to have negative intentions, and more or less, be automatically blamed. This leads people to assume the stance that “silence is golden” and avoid “trouble.”

Markman provides the analogy of a boy who gets blamed for throwing a ball and breaking a window, while the girl he threw it to averts blame:

- “The boy is definitely going to get in trouble. He threw the ball…what about the girl, though? She watched as the ball passed over her head...perhaps she could have done something that would have stopped the ball from hitting the window.”

- “This tendency to blame outcomes on actions rather than inactions [is called] the omission bias.”

Especially in a tough economy, people can easily get timid in the workplace because of the “omission bias.” Everyone is afraid of losing prestige, power, and even their paychecks, if they but open their mouths or make a mistake. And if leaders do not intervene, the result can be employee complacency and inaction.

This is reminiscent of the saying that “it is better to be silent and have people think you are a fool, then to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

What a waste of our organization’s most precious asset—people!

Rather than drawing on our employees’ education, skills and experience to promote organizational growth, we squelch them in the name of “going along to get along.” They learn to “toe the line.”

Part of the problem is that organizations frown on failure, which is a necessary component of learning. We blame people for every mistake rather than celebrating their willingness to try.

The result is that we end up with a workforce so cautious and risk-averse that it stunts our ability to compete. Unfortunately then, our people are like rats who have been shocked into a submission that we don’t really want or intend. Then we wonder why it seems like there is a lot of “dead weight.”

So is blame all bad? Of course not, because accountability and the assignment of responsibility go together.

However, there is a tendency to distort the tool of accountability and take it too far. “The blame game” prevents leaders from harnessing people’s creativity and productivity.

We need to ask ourselves what it is that we really want from our organizations. We can improve our organization’s engagement with their people by building trust versus suspicion, inclusion versus exclusion, and action versus inaction.


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