Becoming a blame-free organization

Sep 09, 2016

Blame is a form of punishment that rarely works, and removing it from a firm’s environment will increase productivity and collaboration.

Would you rather have an employee change her behavior, become more motivated, or make fewer mistakes, because she thinks it’s the right thing to do – or because she simply wants to avoid being blamed? Do we believe that people get up in the morning saying, “I think I’ll do a poor job today” or, “With luck, no one will like me” or, “How can I make sure that my boss and colleagues don’t trust me?” Sound ridiculous? Indeed, it is. And yet, when we lay blame, we imply that mistakes and shortcomings were purposeful.

If it’s a matter of finding out who is at fault, once accomplished, the conversation usually ceases, and it results in not finding long-lasting and innovative solutions. So what’s wrong with blame? Let me tell you.

  • If it works, it’s a short-term solution without positive long-term effects.
  • Blame often models exactly those behaviors and values we’d like employees to avoid.
  • Blame is a form of punishment and tends to create followers, not leaders, because it rarely allows for feedback.
  • Blame may be a “last ditch” effort by desperate supervisors or colleagues and, thus, not a thoughtful act.
  • Once we decide who is at fault, we stop looking for creative and systemic solutions.
  • It doesn’t really matter who is to blame. What matters is that what isn’t working gets fixed.
And yet, we often resort to blame, which is a form of punishment that rarely works. It may change behavior if people care about the consequences, but is not likely to change values. Those change slowly and only when people have sufficient information and are confident that they can manage the change. Further, what should concern us most is that criticizing and blaming are forms of revenge – not a practice we should model

With that as context, here are the reasons why employees don’t do what they’re supposed to do:

  • They don’t clearly know what is expected of them.
  • They don’t know how to do it.
  • They don’t know why they should do it.
  • They think your way may not work or their way will work better.
  • They realize that something else is more important.
  • They anticipate future, negative consequences.
  • They have personal problems or limitations.
  • They lack the proper training.
  • No one could do it.

Any of the above deserves attention and requires some responsible action on everyone’s part.

In a blame-free environment there is a commitment to work things out. Good communication is really the key.

Most importantly, employees should not be afraid. Fear rarely motivates and it promotes secrecy. Even in the most equitable companies, it’s hard to eliminate intimidation. Though people may be encouraged to own up to their mistakes, supervisors play a dual role: They are supposed to help solve problems, yet they evaluate performance. If employees go to a supervisor more than once with the same issue, it may show up negatively on their performance evaluations. If their performance reviews are not primarily about the future, (i.e., what additional training do you need or how can we help you grow?), then there is every reason to be less than forthcoming.

Creating a blame and punitive-free environment is a challenge, but one worth facing. It’s important to remember that a workplace without blame is not an environment without expectations, nor is it chaotic. In fact, it requires increased clarification, articulation, and follow-up. These preferable approaches are usually overlooked or ignored in a punitive atmosphere.

The outcomes of a truly blame-free workplace can be quite extraordinary. If negatively delivered criticism is removed, and a trusting, character-building, supportive environment is created – where everyone involved takes responsibility for what went wrong – long-lasting behavioral changes are generated from within. Rather than continuing to respond to external rewards and punishments, employees internalize what they need to do, and identify expectations for themselves. When those expectations are not met or mistakes are made, people are much more willing to acknowledge the part they played and take responsibility for rectifying the situation.

Gerri King, Ph.D., is a founding partner and president of Human Dynamics Associates Inc., in Concord, New Hampshire. For more information, visit

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.