A blame culture manifests when employees pass responsibility to others for mistakes or lack of accountability. Blame cultures reinforce themselves when managers blame direct reports or lower level employees rather than taking responsibility themselves. Taking ownership of your job and position requires responsibility and accountability. It’s easy to get into a habit of blaming others for mistakes and creating excuses to avoid certain tasks. A blame culture within an organization hurts productivity and quality of work. It breaks down the workplace’s social structures, pitting employees against each other and removing trust. Rather than encouraging collaboration, creativity, and support, blaming and excusing leads employees to feel both vulnerable and uninvested in their job. Leadership and managers can facilitate an inspirational no blame, no excuses culture starts by following these steps.
Leaders can create a no blame culture through behavior modeling with self-awareness and self-efficacy. In the workplace, change starts at the top. You can not effectively ask employees to take accountability and responsibility if you do not do so yourself. Know thyself first, live the change you are asking for, and then you will be taken seriously. According to a study by the MIT Sloan Management Review, workplace blame culture becomes socially contagious, a way for employees to protect their own self-image through what is known as the “kick the dog phenomenon.” When an employee is blamed by their higher-up, they’re more likely to blame someone below them. Leaders in a workplace should take responsibility for their mistakes in public and turn them into learning opportunities. A study for the 12 International Strategic Management Conference found that leadership competency through self-awareness and self-efficacy helps create organization resiliency and increase employee satisfaction, higher profits, and lower turnover.
1. Spread awareness about the physiological effects of blame and excuses.
Focusing on the harmful effects of using blame and excuses for the individual’s health rather than just the organization’s productivity or culture is an effective technique. Blame and excuses are self-defense mechanisms that lead to negative thought patterns like powerlessness, pessimism, helplessness, and anger. When people blame others and make excuses, they deny their own responsibility and self-determination, painting themselves as victims of others. This type of negative thinking leads to increased stress reactivity, low mood, and accelerated cellular aging by increasing cortisol and alpha-amylase levels, two measurable indicators of stress in the body according to Biological Psychology. When blame is replaced with responsibility and accountability, it leads to positive thought patterns like self-confidence, autonomy, and self-reflection. In Habits of a Healthy Brain, Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., finds that you can retrain your brain by thinking positively to release DOSE – Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin, and Endorphins, all “feel good” hormones that make you happy. It takes more work to shift from blame and excuse to action and proactivity; however, the effects are more than worth it!
2. Stop Blaming Yourself and Others!
Use pattern interruption as a way to stop blame and excuses within the workplace. I have a blame and excuses jar in my office. Any time someone blames someone or has an excuse, I tell them to place a dollar in it, then we give the total amount to their favorite charity. Blaming and excusing when you break it down, are just habits, which end up creating a company culture. According to Psychology Today, habits are patterns of behaviors, and in order to break the habits, you have to stop the pattern. Habits have triggers; blaming and excusing are often triggered by walking into a higherup’s office. I also use a buzzing sound and show a time-out symbol using my hands. It may seem a little obnoxious at first, so you need to do it with some humor; however, if you really believe in it, you will continue to do it. You have to lean into this cultural decision with gusto!
3. Define the “Why” as much as the “What.”
When implementing new ideas, like a new workplace culture of accountability, the “why” is as important as the “what.” When introducing your new idea of this responsible no blame culture, doing away with blame and excuses, go into detail about your personal vision and its purpose. Explain why this is important to the organization as a whole, but also to you and each individual employee. Start with yourself and explain how you personally are going to take ownership, being as specific and possible with your technique and actions. Practice co-creation and work with other leadership members and co-create a plan for changing the company culture and welcome the group to create their own ways to start becoming more accountable. A study by the National League for Nursing found that to promote a positive workplace culture, leaders need to empower employees by leading co-creation. Employees become more engaged through collaboration and a shared purpose.
4. Follow-up to ensure accountability.
People must live the change, and you won’t know if you don’t follow-up! It’s easy to talk about change, but implementing it requires dedication and follow-through. The culture of responsibility needs to become a habit where each individual is personally accountable and holds their peers accountable. The role of leadership and managers is to implement strategies for follow up, model this behavior, and offer guidance. Assign a project manager to follow-up and make check-ins on how people are doing in the new No Blame and No Excuses culture the first 10 min of every meeting. Don’t let it go, though, if you miss a meeting where you don’t ask, you have just given up your power to change! According to the European Journal of Social Psychology, inconsistent leaders are seen as less fair and can lead to employees’ feelings of uncertainty in their interpersonal interactions.
5. Look at Yourself.
Once you’ve recognized that many employees and even leaders are using blame and excuses as a way to avoid taking responsibility for their mistakes (it was someone else’s fault) or do a task (I couldn’t get it finished because…) it’s time to start making the change. Start with self-awareness – are you blaming and making excuses? If so, how will you stop yourself? Change begins with you, you need to be willing to model the behavior you are asking your employees of, or it will be inauthentic and ineffective. Dig deep and ask yourself if you are ready to lead and facilitate this kind of culture. Because if you don’t take it seriously, nobody else will – and you will become a joke.
Make the decision or let it go, there is no in-between here. Are you serious about stopping a blame culture. If you’re serious and once you’ve examined your own role, you can start spreading awareness, share your vision for the company, and engage your colleges and employees through co-creation. Once everyone is on-board and working towards the common goal, you can implement pattern interruption and follow-up with your employees, checking in and holding them accountable. Your job is to empower and engage while being the model for change.
One of the Top 100 Coaches, and Founder and CEO of Best Practice Institute, partner to Newsweek on America’s Most Loved Workplaces, and the author of more than 10 books on best practices in leadership and management, including Change Champion’s Field Guide, In Great Company, and Best Practices in Talent Management. Thought leaders and executives voted him as one of Global Gurus Top 10 Organizational Culture thinkers worldwide.