When a project fails, it’s natural to look around for who is to blame. It’s easy to point fingers, convince yourself the problem is solved, and move on. But this instinctive response is unproductive, ineffective, and can negatively impact on both your company’s growth and culture.
A growing body of research shows people who blame others for mistakes “lose status, learn less, and perform worse relative to those who own up to their mistakes. Research also shows that the same applies for organizations.” Teams overrun by a culture of blame suffer from stifled creativity, learning, innovation, and productive risk-taking.
If you can't get past blame, you'll never uncover how and why a project failed.
Too often, managers conflate the fall-person with the cause of the project’s failure when there’s a whole lot more going on. If you can't get past blame, you'll never uncover how and why a project failed. Instead of worrying about identifying the culprit, good leaders focus their energy towards a solution. Not only does this prevent history from repeating, but it also helps create a culture where learning and growth are valued.
Employees blossom when freed from the stress and fear of punishment, and it’s never too late to quit the blame game and transform mistakes into learning opportunities. Here are a few steps to get you started.
Approach situations without bias
Blaming others is often seen as the path of least resistance. Unfortunately, this approach hinders our ability to identify the cause of a problem. Most companies operate on complex systems, and the urge to blame oversimplifies problems and clouds our judgment.
Few problems can be attributed to a single breakpoint. Even when an employee’s actions are directly related to the problem, deeper organizational and process-related issues are often at hand. Blame doesn’t encompass these complexities, so the problem usually remains only to rear its ugly head again. To shift your perspective, there are a few particular biases to be aware of:
- Hindsight bias: Once blame has been assigned, it’s easy to accept that failure had been predictable all along. Suddenly everything seems clear: of course failure happened because of this person’s actions. Hindsight bias tempts us to write a tidy ending to the story, one we had seen coming from the beginning.
- Outcome bias: Similar to the hindsight bias, outcome bias is specifically focused on, you guessed it, the outcome of a decision. Was the outcome bad? Then so was the decision-making process, and by default, the person making the decision.
- Availability bias: We tend to make decisions based on the most immediately available information. Failure is also more memorable than the days when everything goes according to plan. So when something goes wrong, we often neglect to look beyond the immediate circumstances surrounding the problem.
- Fundamental attribution error: Think back to the last time you made a mistake. Did you think you were at fault, or that it was because of the circumstances surrounding it? While we regularly believe our mistakes are the result of circumstance, we’re quick to assume someone else’s mistakes are because of their behavior.
Approaching a situation without bias and blame isn’t easy. Studies have even shown that blame is contagious and hardwired into our desire to protect our self-image. But if you can be aware of these biases, you’re one step closer to stopping the blame game before it starts.
Be prudent, not punitive
Fear is a powerful motivator in our attempts to avoid and assign blame. We may even take fear for granted as a necessary part of the workplace to keep employees in line. But fear can prevent you from gaining a full understanding of why a project failed.
Blame creates a culture of fear, and employees who are afraid will put more value on not getting in trouble than innovating or challenging the status quo. Is your end-game a solution that leads to enhanced productivity and performance? Then strive to foster a company culture that balances accountability with safety. Employees won’t come forward when there is an issue if they are scared, so it’s up to you to provide incentives to do so.
When describing the company culture at Etsy, former CTO John Allspaw revealed why he prioritized creating a blameless and just culture. “A funny thing happens when engineers make mistakes and feel safe when giving details about it: they are not only willing to be held accountable, they are also enthusiastic in helping the rest of the company avoid the same error in the future. They are, after all, the most expert in their own error.”
Blame creates a culture of fear, and employees who are afraid will put more value on not getting in trouble than innovating or challenging the status quo.
It’s important to remember that the person most closely connected with an issue is also the person who has the most information about what went wrong. So instead of a suspect, treat them as a witness. You’ll find the information they have to offer much more valuable to the solution than if you had removed them from the equation.
Lead post-mortems to reflect, examine, and evaluate
Unearthing the full context of what went wrong won’t always be simple. After a failure, it’s important to think about the conditions that led to the incident, examine what support levers were missing, and evaluate how it can be avoided in the future.
Your team is the best resource you have in getting to the root of the problem. Involve your team in these discussions and post-mortems to reinforce your company’s focus on progress and learning, not punishment. You’ll be able to fill in the blanks of what went wrong and develop a holistic understanding of how the failure occurred. Better yet, you'll gain the tools to learn from and improve on failures.
Drive culture and change
Lone-wolf troublemakers are incredibly rare in the working world. If something goes wrong on a project, it’s usually a systemic issue that won’t be solved with finger pointing. Employees who are stressed out or afraid of the repercussions of making mistakes are going to be less creative, engaged, or willing to challenge the status quo. But you can change that. Take your company beyond the blame game by removing bias, promoting positive accountability, and taking a holistic approach to resolving the issues at hand.