Blame is why your culture is low-performing


Have you ever felt blamed at work? 

Years ago, I felt blamed by a colleague for the quality of a deliverable. Meanwhile, I was juggling so many other deliverables that I could barely keep them in the air, and that was after working seven-day weeks for months. And did that blame feel motivating for me? Obviously not.  Did I learn from it? No. Instead of learning, I felt upset and defensive.

And on other occasions, I've done the blaming. And guess what—the colleague on the receiving end didn't seem more motivated. And rather than learning, they got defensive. 

In our gut, something about blame feels wrong. Yet in high-performing organizations, blame, either overt or passive-aggressive, is common. 

It's time we unpack blame. 

As you're reading this, if you have stories about blame, please share them with us - but when you do, please be kind. Blaming those who blamed you only perpetuates the cycle.

How the blame bias replaces systems thinking with pressure systems

Imagine you lead a giant call center. At your altitude, your job is to create systems, versus lead people directly. So, you need to create a system that motivates high performance. You want your system to give your people what they want. So how would you rank the following motivators based on what you think your people want.

  1. For the benefits
  2. For the money
  3. Because the work is worthwhile
  4. For the praise
  5. To gain skills
  6. To feel good about yourself
  7. To learn new things
  8. For the security 

What do you think the top three are?

Brilliant researchers from Duke University wanted to see how well MBA students could predict the answers from call center reps.  Here's how it went down. In the table below, note:

First, it is worth noticing how incredibly inaccurate the MBA students were in their prediction. If they had only guessed their own preferences for the call center reps, the MBAs would have been far more accurate. Now imagine these MBA students becoming future managers with this misconception.  What levers will they optimize?  Probably controlling pay systems versus skill growth and engaging roles.

This example is just a taste of the problematic influence of the blame bias.

Sociologists uncovered this bias in the 1960s and called it the Fundamental Attribution Error. Their finding was that people tend to attribute the cause of a situation to personal traits versus situational context.  For example:

  • That seller was failing because she was lazy, versus the sales process or product strategy were flawed.
  • That driver crashed because he's a bad driver, versus the road conditions were horrible.
  • That student wasn't getting good grades because she was unintelligent, versus she had challenging personal situations to overcome.

This attribution error tends to become worse the further one is from the situation in question.  For example, researchers looked at accidents in factories and mines. The researchers asked experts on the work conditions what was to blame, and compared their answers to colleagues who were further from those conditions. Here's what they found:

  Blamed the victim of the accident
Experts of the work conditions 6%
Colleagues far from the work conditions 44%

So again, if leaders blame their people versus looking more deeply at the systemic root causes, what will they do?  Rather than apply systems thinking, they will build pressure systems. 

Blind trust isn't the answer

At this point in the conversation, leaders will often ask us, "Neel and Lindsay, are you saying I should just blindly trust my people and not hold them accountable?"

First, regarding accountability, we recommend reading the deep dive on this topic, "Don't blame me and call it accountability." However, the summary answer is that there are two ways to think of accountability: controlling and supportive. The former is ultimately demotivating, and the latter is ultimately motivating. To avoid blame-based cultures, create supportive accountability.

However, let's talk about trust, probably one of the most weaponized words we see in companies.  

Neel's sister is one of the world's greatest eye surgeons. If you have a problem with your cornea, she's the one to see. So then would you trust Neel (not his sister) to perform eye surgery on you?  I mean, it must be in the blood, right?  And doesn't his MBA more or less make him qualified to do anything? Of course not. Given his lack of skill, Neel should unequivocally not be trusted to do eye surgery.

Here's a second scenario. Imagine Neel is a world-class eye surgeon also. Except he's under a lot of emotional and economic pressure to do more cataract operations. Would you trust him to do cataract surgery on you?  Of course not. Given his ulterior motives, Neel should unequivocally not be trusted to do eye surgery.

It violates our common sense to trust blindly, because we know that real trust is a function of skill and motive.  Moreover, often when we see companies proclaim they have trust-based cultures, whenever managers attempt to coach teams or provide feedback, they are often viewed as hypocrites for not "trusting" the team.  

So if blame isn't the answer, and blind trust isn't the answer, then what is?  Blame the game.

Don't blame the player, blame the game

W. Edwards Deming is one of the true unsung geniuses of the last decade. He pioneered many critical concepts in group performance, but one of the most important is systems thinking.  According to Deming, "Every system is perfectly designed to get the result that it does." So if you don't like the results, you must examine and change the system.  He goes on to estimate that 94% of performance problems are driven by systemic factors.

The opposite of blaming employees is blaming the system. Don't blame the player, blame the game. But what is the game? The game is defined by the operating model of your organization.

Whether leaders are aware of it or not, they are often fiddling with their systems. Every time you put into place a pay system, new process, or new software, you are trying to adjust systems to change behavior. But rarely do leaders take a step back to fully comprehend these systems. 

In our research, a portion of which is published in the worldwide bestseller, Primed to Perform, we sought to understand the science of these systems so that they can be engineered predictably.  

We found that for any system to be effective at changing employee behavior, it must first change employee motivation in the right ways. This is where most leaders fail.  Governed by the blame bias, leaders attempt to make their systems more controlling. This of course backfires, and results in worse performance. Instead, these operating models should be engineered to be more motivating.  

When we engineer operating models for organizations, we see them as levers that exist at five distinct "altitudes".  

To explain these levers, we're going to share recent quotes from former and current Google employees describing Google's operating system.  We want to caveat this by saying, these are complex issues, and we are not attempting to blame Google's own leaders. Google is one of the most important institutions in the US. Instead, we find that it is much easier for readers to learn by hearing the specific examples from companies they are familiar with.

To blame the game, start by examining all five parts of your operating model. Do they motivate your people?  Are they consistently led from top to bottom?  Are they internally consistent with each other?

How to get started

It isn't easy to shift from a blame-based culture to one focused on systems thinking and continuous improvement. There are a few ways to start this journey.

First, we must start with an organization's leaders. They need to form a common understanding of the organization's operating model, and their role in it. You can start by having your leaders read and discuss Primed to Perform together. If reading is not your cup of tea, there are also ways to train leaders to form this common understanding. 

Second, measure your organization's motivation using Health Checks, not surveys. Surveys run the risk of making motivation worse by triggering a victim mentality. Health Checks solve this problem while also giving you a read on the organization's motivation.

Third, as an executive team, use some of your next offsite to self-diagnose your organization. We'd be happy to Zoom into it and help you with that self-diagnosis is helpful. Just reach out.



Originally published at:

Neel Doshi

Neel is the co-founder of Vega Factor and co-author of bestselling book, Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation. Previously, Neel was a Partner at McKinsey & Company, CTO and founding member of an award-winning tech startup, and employee of several mega-institutions. He studied engineering at MIT and received his MBA from Wharton. In his spare time, he’s an avid yet mediocre woodworker and photographer.

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Lindsay McGregor

Lindsay is the co-founder of Vega Factor and co-author of bestselling book, Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation. Previously, Lindsay led projects at McKinsey & Company, working with large fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, universities and school systems. She received her B.A. from Princeton and an MBA from Harvard. In her spare time she loves investigating and sharing great stories.

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