Blameless Culture: Difficult but Possible

Article by Mike Chaput on February 22, 2019
Mike Chaput
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Imagine what it would feel like to have a perfectly blameless culture. Mistakes would be thought of as nothing more than opportunities to get better. Employees would be unconcerned with judgment and repercussion when they made mistakes and thus would expose errors more quickly. Managers would see mistakes easily, in real-time, because nobody would be concerned with covering them up. All teams would use blameless debriefs to explore ideas for countermeasures.

Think about the increased rate with which could be improved upon. People could tell stories about their own mistakes to the entire company without concern for mangers using shame. All employees could learn from every error.

We wouldn’t worry about a negative reaction from a colleague when we exposed what we believed to be a mistake. We would all understand that mistakes are just an opportunity to get better and our posture would be one of curiosity instead of defensiveness.

Imagine how easy it would be to experiment and try new ideas for solving problems.

Does this sound idealistic? Blameless culture is essential to becoming a lean company. Each time through a process or procedure, lean companies learn and grow with each hiccup. Every day and every cycle, lean companies get a little faster and stronger.

If this sounds good, then why is it so hard to fully adopt? I’m going to discuss three major obstacles that companies face when attempting to adopt this lean idea: Customers, Low functioning pride (LFP), The Hater Syndrome.

1) Customers: It’s never their fault

If you are like us, you care deeply about your clients and client outcomes. Customers do not like mistakes, and they don’t always see errors as an opportunity to improve. Most of the time, customers focus only on the result they experience at that moment. If that result created some level of pain for their organization, they may get emotional and spread these negative emotions to one of our team members. Instinctively and subconsciously, the team member closest to the client will look to release this negative energy and assign blame (who instead of what). In the worst type of irony, we hurt our business relationships, slow down problem-solving, and propagate negative client outcomes in the future. What’s worse is that we don’t even feel better in the end.

What if instead, we challenged our client to adopt and share lean ideas? What if we took the time to explain to clients why blame and negative emotion is so counterproductive to surfacing issues, problem-solving, and learning? What if we took the time to teach them about lean stories like the B17 Bomber, the Andon Cord, and blameless debriefs? What if we choose vulnerability and included the clients in debriefs so they could learn blameless experimentally and give us their unique perspective and ideas? Is it so hard to believe that clients wouldn’t understand why this would benefit them in the long term?

2) Not all pride is equal. Beware of “low functioning pride” (LFP)

As you may well know, at Endsight we have a core value of taking pride in our work. It’s part of our code. We know our work is important and that it has a huge effect on the people and organizations we serve, not to mention our teammates. Pride is a wonderful emotion that can propel us towards our best work while providing us a sense of connection and meaning to what we do. However, it can also have a downside. I call it “low functioning pride”.

LFP is when we let pride get in the way of feedback. It’s when we get defensive and we put protecting our fragile ego ahead of our desire to get better. It’s when we choose self-righteousness over curiosity. Growth requires humility and pride can hold that back when it’s low functioning. LFP must be battled. In LFP mode, we tend to mistake our effort and/or our intention for results.

“In LFP mode, we tend to mistake our effort and/or our intention for results.”

Let’s unpack that last sentence. It is possible to give your 100% best effort and have the best possible intention and yet STILL achieve a poor outcome for customers and/or colleagues.

Whenever this happens, feedback can be difficult. After all, your heart is in the right place and you gave your best effort. What more can someone ask of you? In this scenario, it can be difficult to accept our individual responsibility for outcomes. Our defensive walls go up and subsequently learning shuts down. We become preoccupied with deflecting blame to protect our ego and we lose our natural (almost childlike)  sense of curiosity.

I would argue that in a culture like Endsight, where pride is part of our code, blameless is even more important. We must focus on “what happened” and remove the wasted, counterproductive time spent assigning blame.

What if we took pride in our ability to be blameless? What if we took pride in our willingness to be curious and to put learning in front of ego? What if we took pride in our ability to receive feedback well as much as we do in our ability to do our best work?

3) Don’t fall into “The Hater Syndrome” trap

The other day, I watched a YouTube video of an incredibly gifted guitarist. This kid is in his early 20’s and already has 250 thousand followers on his YouTube channel. He did a rendition of a Beatles song that knocked my socks off because of how technically challenging his fingerpicking rendition is on guitar, and how horrifically difficult the falsetto is to sing. The video has about 1.5 million views, 29 thousand likes, and 304 thumbs down.

What’s going on here? Why would 304 people thumbs-down this video? Could it be because they paid too much to enjoy this free content? I’m not saying everyone has to even love the work, but why do people actively dislike and write negative reviews to free content?

Believe it or not, there is science explaining the phenomenon that I call “the hater syndrome”.  It turns out that people unwittingly view negative critics as being smarter than supporters…and by a lot. That’s right, you can appear (a lot) smarter than your colleagues simply by cutting others down.

If you’re intesested in learning more, here is a fun article from Wired discussing this phenomenon.

Blameless culture is rare

Whether or not we are consciously aware of this, many companies partake in this behavior often without even realizing it. Criticizing not only makes us appear smarter to our colleagues, bosses, and those we hope to impress; but it also makes us appear smarter to ourselves. Unfortunately, putting someone down elevates our self-perception and self-esteem. Even kids have figured this out, which is why bullying is such an epidemic.

Blameless culture is a huge hill to climb given the self-interest bias to criticize others. However, the upside to a blameless culture is enormous.


Note: This article originally appeared as an internal email to the entire Endsight team in the third quarter of 2018. It has been modified slightly to be useful and applicable to our clients and business friends.

Tags: Culture, Leadership

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