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Six proven ways to create a blame-free culture in your growing business

Think back to the last time someone made a mistake in your business. How did they react? Did they get defensive? Did they try and hide it? Or blame someone else? And how did you respond to the mistake? Did you show your irritation? Was there judgement or punishment?

This will tell you everything you need to know about the health of your business culture and whether it’s blame-free. If there’s psychological safety in the team, people will be comfortable owning up to their mistakes. Fundamentally, there will be no fear of negative consequences.

Fear is an interesting thing. We know from rat experiments how this feeling affects the brain. Rats are put into a maze that they’ve solved before. The researchers then introduce a protein found in cat saliva into the air. The fear this induces causes the rats to lose their creativity. Their problem-solving abilities disappear. 

The same thing happens in the human brain. Not only does creativity drop, but inertia kicks in. There’s a great book released recently called ‘The Jolt Effect’ by Matthew Dixon and Ted McKenna. They describe how 60% of sales deals stall because the individual making the decision fears that if something goes wrong, they’ll be left carrying the can. People have a lower risk tolerance if they’re worried and resist putting their heads above the parapet. Productivity drops like a stone.

All of these are reasons why creating a blame-free culture is important. It’s the only way to ensure that your teams are high performing. So how do you do it?

    1. Blame the process, not the person

    In blameless cultures, leaders isolate their teams from blame by blaming the process. There’s a focus on understanding why something has happened rather than who is responsible. And when they’ve found the root cause, they create systems that hopefully prevent it from happening again.

    There is shared accountability for problems. People take ownership of their work and collaborate to address problems. I like Alan Weiss’ quote from ‘Million Dollar Consulting’. He said, ‘I’m amazed how stupid I was two weeks ago.’ This recognises that life is a learning process, and this never stops.

    2. Leaders take accountability for mistakes

    Leaders need to own any failures in their teams. And also their own. Some find that difficult. It harks back to childhood. I see it in my young children – ‘It’s not my fault, it’s hers’ is their default phrase! We grow up with an inherent sense of justice – it’s instinctive to resist being blamed for something you feel you didn’t do.

    But sometimes, as a leader, this is exactly what you must do. Remember, you cast a long shadow. You’re modelling the behaviour you wish to see in others. So openly acknowledge your shortcomings and resist the urge to point fingers. 

    3. Collective focus on improvement

    team effort

    Instead of finding someone to blame when things go wrong, focus on process improvement. You’re trying to build a culture of open questioning here.

    Good ideas are initiatives like ‘stupidrules@’ – an email address that staff can use to report things that need to change. Ask new starters about the things they observe that are strange about how you work. They have fresh eyes and will see things you’ve not noticed before. You’re creating a cultural norm of constant improvement from the beginning of your relationship with them. And encourage people to take ownership of anything that needs to be fixed. There should be no broken chairs in your boardroom! That’s a sign that your blame culture needs to change.

    4. See mistakes as opportunities to learn

    The best way to learn is through experience. So people must be encouraged to try, even if they might fail, rather than avoid failure at all costs. The key to this is to reframe mistakes into opportunities to learn. 

    Retrospectives and post-mortems can be useful here. Always take the opportunity to look together at what went wrong and learn from it. Train your staff in root cause analysis. They can use tools like the ‘Five Whys’ to drill down the process. 

    5. Stick to facts rather than opinions

    To take some of the personal heat out of discussions, encourage everyone to stick to the facts. The phrase coined by W. Edward Deming jumps into my mind here ‘In God we trust. All others must bring data’.

    This is about open communication. In my days at Rackspace, we enshrined in our values’ Bad news first, no surprises’. If we cocked up with a customer, we’d immediately hold up our hands to say we’d failed. Then we’d tell them what we were doing to the process to fix it. This approach had a positive effect internally. By being open externally, we encouraged the same from our staff. It differentiated us from most of our competitors, who were reluctant to admit fault to customers and often lied and blamed others.

    6. Take the stigma out of failure

    Acknowledge that mistakes are inevitable and are nothing to fear. This will allow your staff to take risks and encourage creativity and problem-solving. 

    At Peer 1, we introduced our ‘Cock-Up of the Month’ award. The opposite of sweeping things under the carpet, this recognised the worst failure with a bottle of champagne. I remember a guy named Liam who took an entire data centre by mistake. He held his hands up immediately, saying he’d fat-fingered it in the middle of the night after working 24 hours straight. He apologised for causing everyone a load of work, but he could have easily covered it up. Because we’d removed the stigma, he owned up.

    ‘Fail fast’ is a phrase I’ve never liked, but it helps remove stigma. It encourages people to take risks. People will be reluctant to tackle the tricky stuff if you have a blame culture. And in projects, you need them to do this first. To save unnecessary time and effort, it’s important to work out the parts of the project you least understand where there might be an unproven hypothesis. You want to minimise risk and get a return on learning from the failure you might have. If you have a culture that fears blame, people will only do the easy things where they feel confident. They’ll leave the scary stuff to the end, and the project will time out. 

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    Building a blame-free culture will take effort and commitment from all levels of your business. But the benefits of increased trust, collaboration and innovation are well worth it.

    Overcome the challenges stopping you from reaching your full potential. Learn more about...
    • NAVIGATING AND COMMUNICATING CHANGE
    • BUILDING COMPANY CULTURE
    • CHOOSING THE RIGHT OPPORTUNITIES
    • ORGANISING YOUR A-TEAM

    Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his new book, ‘Mind Your F**king Business’ here.

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