Blame Cultures and alternatives

My current pair Dan and I got into a discussion about blame cultures. He told me about a meeting he was once in, in which the boss said, “We don’t want to start a blame culture.”

“Yes,” said another employee, “but it’s better than having a Teflon culture.” Dan told me that he’d worked in one place where a few employees had managed to mess things up, resulting in the project’s failure and the whole company going down the pan.

I reckon this is because some of them still had a bit of a blame culture, or at least a blame culture mentality. Blame cultures stop people communicating to one another. They stop people wanting to be involved, make people hold onto knowledge instead of sharing it (since being the only person with important knowledge prevents you from being fired) and cause people to avow responsibility for anything. The few people who do want to get involved and take responsibility invariably end up with all the blame and none of the appreciation. It’s happened to me.

“So what’s the alternative,” Dan mused, “when a few people can’t be bothered, or make mistakes? Where does the buck stop? How do you ask them, ‘Why haven’t you done this yet? Why’s this not working?'”

“You don’t,” I said. “You ask them, ‘Can I help you with that?’ It’s your project; it’s your responsibility too.”

“But how do you know when people need help?” Dan asked.

I shrugged. “Dunno. Everyone on this project just assumed I could use the help when I started. As a result, I’m not afraid to ask for help when I need it.”

So I’m learning things, and getting better, and I’m not afraid to start seemingly impossible tasks because I know that someone round here will help me and share their knowledge. Maybe there are people on projects who simply aren’t as good as others. A blame culture won’t help with that. People who aren’t good at their job are sometimes very good at hiding it.

I believe that sharing responsibility and communication is the best way to make good use of everyone, and find out how good people really are. It’s not an invasion of your privacy. Don’t think about it as “If you’ve done nothing wrong you’ve got nothing to hide*“. Think about it as “Everyone has something they can teach you – and you, too, have something you can teach.” Have courage. Be motivated. Take responsibility, and let other people see you enjoying it. Let people know that they can come to you for help without fear of blame. The worst thing that can happen is that you may find yourself in need of a new job. If it comes to that, you probably deserve one**. I did.

* The ID card scheme is, IMHO, another kind of blame culture.

**See also the White Book, Extreme Programming Explained, and my favouorite book so far, Extreme Programming Applied, which say much the same thing.

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2 Responses to Blame Cultures and alternatives

  1. anonymous says:

    You identified the problem: what you need is a responsibility culture, not a blame culture. If people don’t step up to solve problems, then you don’t have a responsibility culture.

    Responsibility includes consequences. If you are responsible for something, and you regularly drop the ball, then you can expect consequences. Fear of consequences is what leads to a blame culture.

    [There is an interesting development milestone with young children. When they do something wrong, and get caught, they will admit to it: they didn’t know it was wrong. Assuming they don’t stop (and they won’t), sooner or later they will stop admitting to it – they have associated admitting the guilt with the resulting punishment. Quite frequently, they will lie (as a matter of fact, if they don’t at least try lying, then they’re probably not bright enough to think of it). It’s not until they see that their action was what caused the punishment, rather than the subsequent admission, then they will not learn not to do the action. For some children, this can take a while.]

    You can’t avoid consequences. However, you can demonstrate that understandable mistakes do not have drastic consequences. Treating mistakes as learning opportunities helps here.

    The biggest consequences should be for refusal to follow instructions designed to protect against mistakes or damage. This shows either negligence or willful culpability.

    Blame cultures are highly sick, but also hard to fix. I find it amazing that companies refuse to apologise to people they hurt these days, simply because the expression of regret implies guilt, and thus hurts their legal case when it comes to law suits – classic blame culture response.

    Robert Watkins.

  2. anonymous says:

    “Everybody on an XP team should feel like an idiot regularly.” p. 62

    “When you’re honest with others and with yourself, you have no choice but to be humble. When you are humble, you are teachable. When you are teachable, you learn. When you learn, you can use what you learn to achieve great things.” p. 65

    It is my favorite XP book too.


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