How Breaking the Blame Cycle Strengthens Your Culture
30 August 2023 - Langdon Dement
We’re all familiar with the blame game - pointing fingers when something goes awry. But what about when it occurs in the workplace? In health and safety, the blame cycle can actually disrupt operations and impact employee trust, creating a negative safety culture.
Let’s play out a scenario: a few days ago, Tim was working on the job as he usually does, but this time something unusual occurred; an incident ensued. Tim had been doing the job for years and was well-versed in the requirements and hazards of the job. He was a good employee, was up to date on his trainings and was cognizant of his surroundings.
Unfortunately, on this day, Tim had experienced a long night prior to work and was still a bit tired from a lack of sleep. As he hopped onto a forklift, he failed to put on his seatbelt and proceeded to pick up a pallet. While trying to hurry, he overloaded the forklift and ran into a column which knocked over the pallet and threw Tim from the forklift. He was not seriously injured but did sustain a sprained ankle, was unable to work for a couple of days and was responsible for property damage that occurred.
Regrettably, his workplace didn’t see the incident as a process failure but instead viewed it as negligence on Tim’s part and gave him disciplinary action. In that single action and organizational viewpoint, the blame cycle began.
To provide a better understanding of what this means for Tim and the organization, let’s take a look at what the blame cycle looks like in many instances:
Whether on purpose or just a freak accident, an error occurs, leading to some type of incident (human, property, environment, etc.).
After the incident, management provides some level of disciplinary action to the employee. The reason doesn’t really matter (whether deserving or not).
Now we start embarking on the seriousness of incorrect ramifications. Not only does management reduce their trust in the worker, but the worker doesn’t trust management and supervisors. From the worker’s perspective, why should they trust management when they receive underserving ramifications for an action?
With “trust” issues from employee to management, we experience a lack of communication. This can span from communication of “good” workplace activities to “negative” actions, which will further create a lack of understanding and organizational awareness.
Management awareness suffers
Due to a lack of communication with frontline employees, management will not have the transparency needed to truly understand what is taking place in the workplace. Not only from an employee standpoint, but also from a hazard, operational and quality perspective.
System weakness exists and persists
The final phase is the existence and persistence of a system weakness. From a management viewpoint, they are in the middle of a cyclical issue that if not corrected, can lead to further issues and even decreased employee morale as a whole. From an employee perspective, they feel management has “neglected” them and doesn’t care about their health, safety and well-being.
What we have just experienced is the complete blame cycle, leading to process failures, not the failure of people. In Tim’s case, we stopped the story at the reduced trust phase, but you can imagine how the scenario would have progressed if we continued the cycle.
All too often, we hear of situations like Tim’s and contemplate what would happen if it was in our own organization. What type of culture exists within our workplaces? Is it one of slight blame and disappointment in an employee for making a mistake? Or is it one of understanding and a desire to learn from incidents to prevent them from happening again?
Maybe comments were made that morning where co-workers or managers missed a clue into Tim’s night. Maybe with a mix of Tim being tired and the lack of a forklift pre-use checklist, he failed to even consider using a seatbelt and putting too much weight on the forks. Or maybe, Tim just didn’t realize how tired he was from being up all night with a sick child and instead of being as cognizant as usual, he just made a simple mistake.
Whatever the reason, mature organizations view this as a process failure as opposed to a people failure. (Now conversely, if Tim has a history of making mistakes, not paying attention, being careless or negligent, then that’s a different story from what we have been discussing.) But in our situation, by automatically blaming Tim for the incident and giving him negative repercussions, you are on the verge of creating a negative safety culture. We also know, as negativity grows and “blossoms” throughout an organization, no matter what we do, that negativity will deteriorate any positive efforts being made and squash any hopes of having a proactive health and safety environment.
As you consider the type of culture that exists at your organization, and ponder Tim’s scenario, reflect for a few minutes about each phase of the blame cycle. Is that how your organization would respond? Would your organization correct the drift at the decreased communication phase and make a shift on improving? Whatever the stage or situation, strive to create an organization that wants to continually improve, keep everyone healthy and safe and ultimately understands that sometimes failures happen; and when they do, instead of putting blame on the worker, understand that a process may have failed the employee.
To see a visual representation on how you can avoid playing the blame game at your organization, watch our video: Why We Need To End the Blame Cycle
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