Fostering a Blameless Culture

Like I did, some of you may have received a blank email a few months ago accidentally sent from HBO Max with the subject, “Integration Test Email #1.” Later that day, HBO tweeted an explanation: “As the jokes pile in, yes, it was the intern.”

While many of the 6,500+ comments offered support (“we’ve all been there,” “it will get better”) or commiseration (“I once managed to delete our company’s intranet”) to the intern, I instead cringed at a culture that deems it appropriate to assign blame for a visible (albeit harmless) slip-up.

Mistakes happen, especially in the fast-paced world in which we live. It’s how we respond to those blunders that is so telling. Do we take responsibility or point fingers? Do we focus on solutions or on assigning blame? The approach taken tells a lot about the culture (and ultimately the effectiveness) of an organization.

Don’t play the blame game

Deflecting attention is an instinctual defense mechanism to avoid scorn or punishment. Think about how apt kids are to pin fault on someone else. “I wasn’t the one to leave the door open — Beth did it!” Or “I didn’t throw the baseball at the window — it was Johnny!” But what does it really accomplish? Still, the dog got loose, and the window is broken.

In the business world, blame is often motivated by a similar desire for self-preservation, where employees may feel the need to protect their jobs, reputations, or bonuses. But playing the “blame game” — implicating others for snafus, big or small — rarely results in better outcomes. It wastes time and energy better spent understanding issues, resolving problems, and preventing recurrences.

According to research professor Brené Brown, “Blame is simply the discharging of discomfort and pain.” In her compelling video, Brown describes how blame gives us a semblance of control, but in reality it has a corrosive effect on relationships and an inverse relationship with accountability.

Blame is about finding fault, expressing disapproval, reprimanding, or shaming. Blame is imbued with judgement and condemnation. In a blame culture people are apt to cover up mistakes, protect themselves, and deny responsibility. Where there’s blame there isn’t sufficient learning or openness. We lack detailed information about what really happened, and therefore are unable to make informed decisions or remediate issues. A focus on blame stunts creativity and innovation, causing teams to become risk-averse and defensive, a vicious cycle that doesn’t end well.

Stop the finger pointing

Pointing a finger at someone (either literally or figuratively) is serious business. Picture the classic scene from a legal drama: “Do you see the person who committed the crime in this courtroom?” The individual on the stand raises her hand and points dramatically at the perpetrator. “Let the record show that the witness has identified the defendant.” Pointing is an allegation, an accusation.

Teams in which finger-pointing is the norm often have a toxic culture full of fear and mistrust. There is little incentive to cooperate and collaborate, and productivity and quality suffer. There’s an interesting Native American saying: “Every time you point a finger in scorn, there are three remaining fingers pointing right back at you.” This reminds us not to focus on another’s imperfections, but to look at ourselves — our own gaps and shortcomings — and to take responsibility for what we can control.

Growing up, my father had a kitschy sign in our house: “Around here I have a very responsible position. Any time something goes wrong, I’m responsible.” It got some good laughs. But responsibility is different than blame. Responsibility seeks to discover any and all contributing factors. It starts by acknowledging a problem exists that needs to be solved. It casts a wide net, considering all factors that may have contributed to the problem. It seeks to understand, resolve, and prevent issues. And it comes from a genuine desire to improve outcomes.

Focus on solutions

When faced with a major incident — like a missed deliverable, a critical client situation, or a business process or IT failure — it’s tempting to root out the individual or team deemed responsible. However, this gets in the way of true problem solving. We should take no pleasure in pointing fingers at a “culprit” but rather join forces to find solutions that make everyone successful and prevent issues from reoccurring.

Instead of asking “Who is at fault?” shift to a focus around “Why did this happen, what can we do about it, and how will we prevent similar incidents in the future?” Offer support instead of criticism and forgive mistakes. Reward positive behavior and celebrate successes. Foster openness and lead by example.

In some organizations, this may require a cultural shift. To get started, acknowledge the challenges, focus on learning from failure, and value responsibility over blame. Formal retrospectives or postmortems are helpful to improve processes and promote continuous improvement. Blameless retrospectives assume positive intent, create psychological safety, and focus on system-level issues instead of individual or team behaviors. Originated in the healthcare and aviation industries where mistakes can be fatal, blameless retrospectives have been applied to engineering teams in recent years, focused on learning from failure and identifying constructive solutions.

Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is a structured process used to assess the causes of major incidents and prevent recurrences. Steps include defining the problem, isolating specific causes, identifying potential solutions, and implementing the best solutions. The “five whys” (first used by Toyota Motor Corporation to optimize their manufacturing processes) is an iterative technique used to get to root cause during an RCA. The “fishbone diagram” (pioneered for quality management in Kawasaki shipyards) is another useful visual tool for identifying causes of a specific event.

So, back to HBO Max. What did they learn from the accidental email? Did they put in place review processes, automated testing, or other safeguards to prevent future incidents? Did they take responsibility for the failure and implement learning that will make the entire organization (not just that poor intern!) more effective going forward? A focus on blame distracts us from solving the real problems. With a shift in mindset and by adopting industry best practices, we can foster a blameless culture that optimizes outcomes while improving employee experience.

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