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Change Work July 2013

It's a blame culture - and whose fault is that?

What's happened to management?

Almost every day we hear stories of some commercial or public disaster caused by "management failings".  From the news you'd think that our health and social services, government departments and big business are all run by incompetents just waiting to be found out! Until there's a revelation of a catalogue of problems ignored for years or a single, catastrophic blunder. Occasionally a senior figure resigns or is fired, but more often there's concealment of facts and denial of responsibility.

What's going on here?  Are managers really this bad?  Does it have to be like this?

I think that one of the underlying causes of this apparent epidemic of bad management is that we, collectively, don't have a clear idea of what to expect from management or a proportionate response to failure.  So mistakes go unnoticed until the consequences are revealed publicly and then there's a rush to judgement and a demand for retribution.  This completely overwhelms the truth or any genuine desire to learn and to improve.

If the avoidance of blame is paramount then the organisation is sick - and being an employee or client of it will be a miserable experience.

We can't tell the difference between honest mistakes made by well-intentioned, conscientious people and deliberate, self-serving manipulation. This is very bad for all segments of society.

If you're self-employed and you bankrupt your business then you also bankrupt yourself.  Whilst I think it's probably quite hard to completely ruin a big company, massive losses can be made - even by banks.  In contrast to the small business owner, their leaders aren't personally liable and they might expect to keep their pensions and their bonuses, even if they lose their job (which doesn't always happen).  It's not so much that they are let off paying the price of their mis-management, rather that it's not clear that they were at fault at all.  And you might suspect that things are arranged to make sure that it isn't clear.

The overwhelming incentive is to cover up mistakes and to deny responsibility.

In large companies it's up to the shareholders ultimately to hold the directors to account.  In the public sector it's usually the news media that, on our behalf, pursues public service managers who've fallen short in some serious way.  The media lead public opinion and give their attention to the most sensational events and issues.  This leaves the impression that the public is incensed by whatever is being reported which justifies more investigation and more comment.  Such comment then morphs into fact and becomes itself part of the story.  Any manager caught up in this will have to go sooner or later, voluntarily or not.

If there's no chance of a fair hearing or balanced reporting, who would own up and take responsibility for anything?  Again, the clear incentive is to conceal or play down problems, keep your head down and deflect the blame.

And I wonder how often it happens that small problems grow to critical proportions because no-one dares to grasp them and deal with them early.  So the blame culture actually makes things worse by driving self-protective behaviours.

(Of course, in addition to the commercial and public service worlds, there's also the political arena.  The people who make our laws are directly elected by us and are directly accountable to us.  We have the power to throw them out, so they can never afford to take the blame for anything, and never do - unless caught red-handed in some dirty dealing.)

I believe that scheming manipulators are the exception in all fields of management.  Most managers, just like most other workers, are doing their best with the resources they've got and it's grossly unfair to single them out for punishment when things go wrong.  But beyond the unfairness, it's also counterproductive.  Whilst there has to be some payback for failure, the experience of it is priceless and shouldn't be discarded along with the guilty manager.  It's said that the attitude inside 3M (one of the most innovative of companies) is that the manager of a project that fails is a better project manager as a result.  In contrast, you can argue that the most dangerous managers are the ones who've always been successful - because they come to believe that they're infallible!

In our everyday jobs that (hopefully) don't make the headlines, we can push in the right direction by looking for the learning in every outcome - triumph or disaster.  And there's usually more to be learned from the disasters if you're receptive to it.  With this goes the taking of responsibility for your errors - making it your default response - because the sooner you say, "Sorry. That was my fault - I'll put it right," the easier it will be to say and the easier it will be to do.

Managers are fallible and always will be.  Mistakes are inevitable and you'll never know everything, which means that the process of getting better at what you do is never ending - and how boring life would be if it were otherwise!