Hearing the silence – How to recognise a blame culture developing in the workplace

Human Resources 29th June 2022

In a recent blog we discussed how blame culture could stifle success in the workplace and there is little doubt that they are extremely toxic. How do you know a blame culture is developing and what can you do to disrupt it?

Deal with blame cultures early

Anyone who has had to deal with a highly developed blame culture will tell you just how hard it is to combat one. Changing any embedded culture is difficult, but a toxic one can be particularly hard. It is an unfortunate rule of thumb that a negative attitude is often easier to adopt than a positive one. Nobody wants to be the source of a problem, so blame cultures offer instant gratification to an individual or team because they shift responsibility, assign guilt, and avoid the need for any additional remedial action. As a manager they offer a scapegoat to offer up as the source of a problem. Of course, this is not only the wrong way to deal with any issues that occur, but it is also a self-feeding spiral of accusation and lack of responsibility that can be astonishingly destructive. Once it is fully entrenched a blame culture will result in reduced performance, a lack of job satisfaction, stress and distrust amongst the team, bad customer service, and a very high turnover of staff.

The good news is that, while a blame culture can form with relative ease, it takes a long time to embed and is actually not how people like to behave. For the most part employees and managers want to be collaborative and enjoy their working day. So, if you catch it early enough, you can appeal to these better attitudes and start to reduce the effects of the toxicity.

Some signs of a blame culture

The problem with a group dynamic is that it is usually invisible, or at least unnoticed, by those within it. It is difficult to see a blame culture from the inside because they develop slowly and become the norm. At that point we take them for granted. The first thing to do then, is to take the time to see how your colleagues are behaving and ensure you recognise the signs of blame cultures emerging. These are just some of the signs:

Working practices

• Teams and individuals will start to slow down and be less productive – This is in the false belief that this will avoid being the source of a problem

• A preference for ‘easy’ jobs will develop

• Difficult tasks will be avoided or deferred

• Inappropriate delegation of tasks happens resulting in newer, untrained, or junior employees being blamed for mistakes

• Employees will focus on their own ‘silo of competence’ by refusing work they do not see as being in their remit

• Productivity and commitment will fall

Language and cultural cues

• There will always be a ‘but’, even following a success to pre-defer any potential blame. This is really a sad situation because it waters down the pleasure of achievement.

• The language of highlighting difference will creep in. Instead of a different approach being considered it will be discussed as ‘only you think’ or ‘their idea was’. This is to apportion blame on non-conformity

• Non-specific blame shifting will appear where a problem or issue is deflected as being caused by persons unknown. Again, this is to avoid responsibility

• Groups will stick together for protection

• Gossip increases and the isolating of some people and even bullying will start to appear

Managers who are indulging blame culture will

• Refuse to accept a blame culture is happening

• Push responsibility down the chain

• Complain about competence 

• Use one to one, and review sessions as critical attacks rather than development opportunities

• Become angry or frustrated at small mistakes and often blow these out of proportion

• Seek a formal grievance or competence reviews for employees without exploring less combative solutions.

The course of action if a blame culture is developing

The most important response to an emerging blame culture is, at the risk of stating the obvious, to make sure you respond. Act as soon as you recognise the issue. However, a word of caution here. As we have already noted, if you are part of the developing culture there are two things to bear in mind. Firstly, the workforce will resist change because it is embedded in the practice of the group, and they will not recognise it. Secondly, you may be asking a lot of yourself to change your own attitude. Remember you have probably, albeit unwittingly, been a part of a blame culture and that will be hard to shake off.

Blame cultures can be disrupted by:

• Training to raise awareness

• Instilling a top-down culture of taking responsibility

• Changing investigations into improvement opportunities

• Examining systems and processes to identify any that facilitate blame

• Taking anything that could be seen as apportioning blame out of the public sphere

• The creation of improved HR policies to support a blame free environment

• Creating a strong culture where accepting responsibility is standard practice

• Putting praise and constructive feedback at the heart of your employee relationships

Finally, an outsider view of your workplace to look at an appropriate HR response to a blame culture, will probably be the most effective action you can take. Turning around a blame culture or stopping one developing in the first place will be much easier with impartial guidance.

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