Blame has little or no remedial value in practice. We can see what it typically achieves in the context of two example organisations based on real-life experience.

Let’s look at organisation A

Here a blame culture gives this organisation a false sense of reassurance. Collectively, its people believe that all incidents are the fault of those at the sharp end, the human is the hazard and when things go wrong (as they inevitably do) it’s nothing to do with the culture that’s evolved over time, available resources, support and understanding directed to helping those on the frontline.

For staff actually at the sharp end does this blame culture encourage them to be open, honest and transparent with their line managers? And does the wider organisation seek improvements needed to keep them free from harm? Clearly not.
Circle of fingers all pointing at one another
As a result those at the top of organisation A stay blissfully unaware of shortcuts and workarounds on the shop floor because no one speaks up. Even worse, they might be aware but uninterested because the fault always lies with staff at the sharp end and their deficient error-prone mental processes.

This detached position is a fool’s paradise because when it comes to the organisation’s role in an incident, it too will not escape scrutiny. Would you want to be a senior manager at organisation A after an incident?

For staff at the sharp end, they too are perhaps blissfully ignorant of risk-taking on the margins of what’s safe simply because that’s the only way to get the job done within the targets imposed on them.

So how do we improve matters?

Let’s look at organisation B

This organisation is brave enough to admit that improvement is possible and that their culture isn’t all it could be. They found out what people on the front line really think about safety through some kind of culture based safety questionnaire perhaps.

From the survey’s results they developed a plan of action. Amongst other things they:

  • Train safety champions to have structured safety-focussed conversations without blame
  • Facilitate conversations that recognise what people do well
  • Discuss difficulties openly to identify improvements
  • Implement improvements that put both the organisation and the workforce in a better position than they would have been had conversations never taken place
  • Recognise the skills, knowledge and experience of the workforce through discussion

Organisation B share their problems and solutions with their parent corporation for everyone’s benefit (rather than confining it locally) so people learn and share access to a wider knowledge pool.

Which organisation would you rather work for?

Blame and accountability

People often say the origin of their organisation’s blame culture began somewhere in the past when there was a different management team, possibly even a different parent organisation. Yet that’s no excuse for not taking the first step towards improvement by agreeing that where you are now must change, and that you need a more just culture.

Let’s be clear: there is no place for blame in progressive and successful organisations. And we mustn’t confuse blame with accountability. We ultimately have to be held to account for our actions but only following a just investigation of the facts. One that looks holistically at the organisational and local workplace factors which led to an incident. To grow in the shadow of an incident, a robust investigation team must avoid applying hindsight bias in their pursuit of the truth.

Furthermore, to hold people to account we must first ensure they had sufficient resources to carry out their duties and responsibilities. To fail in this regard is setting people up to fail and holding them to account would be as unjust as blaming them.