For at least a decade, the idea of a “No blame culture” has been a watchword of modern business. Nobody wants to work in an environment where people who ought to work together are too busy sniping and protecting their own empires to do a great job.
It’s a good logic: the effort involved in protectionism in an ultra-competitive environment is a huge waste of a company’s resources and talent. A business which models itself on civil war can expect the same devastation and lack of productive, targeted effort as a real war .
But is a “No blame culture” perfect, either? It’s not so much that these companies are liable to rest on their laurels and descend into a hippie commune of comfy mutual backslapping. After all, in 2016 it’s pretty hard to hide a life of laziness. Rather, the problem with a no-blame culture is that the lack of self-examination and “lessons learned” processes has an unintended casualty: collaboration.
Pointing fingers isn’t collaborative. It also doesn’t encourage the types of behaviours which will support the consistent successful delivery of project milestones. But ‘no blame’ also isn’t collaborative. It doesn’t reward or incentivise mutual accountability, responsibility or continuous professional improvement. In fact, ‘no blame’ promotes the status quo; it rewards those who don’t rock the boat and in so doing encourages a convergence of achievement around the average, rather than the exceptional. If a blame culture fails with explosions and recriminations, ‘no blame’ will fail with a whimper, as your business is overtaken by hungrier, more aggressive competitors.
Our preferred alternative comes from the world of aviation safety – where mistakes cost real lives. In this field, human factors specialists have spent the past couple of decades refining models which ensure that safety comes before hierarchy and lessons are always learned. The result is a “Just Culture”, which rewards effort, collaboration and problem solving, without sacrificing appropriate risk taking and innovation. It also enables us to identify and resolve typical operational handicaps: poor management, siloed thinking and divisional paralysis.
In a Just Culture, human error is treated as a natural given – so colleagues are incentivised to help each other out. (Reckless behaviour, meanwhile, becomes both obvious and easy to challenge). The business makes a long-term commitment to communication, learning and training, and best practice – all motivated in employees by well-defined values and accessible leadership.
In aviation, the results are clear to see: safer and more competent airlines. But the same goes for businesses with less black-and-white definitions of best practice: operational risk is reduced and both efficiency and profitability improve. Individual players take pride in owning challenges because they are not only personally accountable but can also rely on the support of colleagues when it’s needed most.
Blame doesn’t make for a great workplace. But ‘no blame’ doesn’t create companies which reach for the stars. In a Just Culture, blame simply isn’t on the agenda at all.