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Why Blame Stalls Improvement & 5 Ways Leaders Can Create a Blame-Free Environment - GoLeanSixSigma.com

Most organizations begin their Lean Six Sigma journey with training. This can be a great place to start if the culture is ready for it. However, it doesn’t make sense to start training employees on these highly effective concepts and tools if a high level of blame exists within the organization. It won’t matter that employees are trained and armed with the best process improvement tools if the culture prevents employees from using them.

In order for process improvement to flourish in the workplace, employees have to be comfortable admitting that problems exist in the first place. If employees work in a high blame environment, it will be very uncomfortable for them to share their problems and put themselves at risk of retribution.

Does the Blame Game Get Played in Your Organization?

If high blame exists, leaders need to address this cultural barrier before doing anything else. Why is it up to leaders to address this issue? Because leaders decide what employees pay attention to. Leaders have an enormous impact on employee behavior. A simple example: Have you ever had a boss that came in very early, or stayed late, past 5:00 o’clock? How did that affect others? Most likely, employees felt compelled to do the same. The leader may have never required people to stay late or show up early , but the leader’s behavior influences others. Dr. Henry Cloud, the author of Boundaries For Leaders, says, “Culture is created by what is tolerated and what is promoted.” Leaders dictate, by words and actions, what will be tolerated or promoted in an organization.

Leaders dictate, by words and actions, what will be tolerated or promoted in an organization.

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Whatever the culture is today, leaders must own it, because leaders hold cultural norms in place. The ripple effects of leaders’ behaviors are significant within an organization and leaders drive the culture more than they realize. If a cultural change is needed, it’s up to the leaders to make the change.

Here are a few things leaders can do to intentionally create a blame-free environment such that process improvement can succeed and flourish:

1. Use the Stop-Start-Continue Tool

A change management tool called “Stop-Start-Continue” is an easy way to put new behaviors into action and identify existing behaviors that should stop. This tool can be used anytime there’s a need for a shift in behavior. One way to create a blame-free environment is to facilitate a discussion with the leadership team using the Stop-Start-Continue tool. A strong, experienced and trusted facilitator is important for discussions involving leadership and cultural topics. The tool can be used by leaders to agree on the behaviors and actions their leadership team wants to change collectively.

The best approach is for those who will be making behavioral changes to populate the tool themselves. It is not ideal to populate the tool for others and then hand it off to others to implement. This would not promote buy-in, ownership or accountability.

Stop-Start-Continue

Now that you are familiar with the Stop-Start-Continue tool here are four elements leaders might consider including (if applicable) in order to promote and build a blame-free organization:

2. STOP: Searches for the Guilty

When things go wrong or employees make mistakes, what are the consequences? Do employees run for cover as leaders search the office hallways for the guilty? Are employees publicly shamed for making mistakes ? This behavior can do a lot of damage to the existence of a blame-free environment. Some leaders may think that searching for the guilty will force employees to make less mistakes, but what really happens is that employees learn to hide mistakes from leaders. Problems? We got no problems! And hidden mistakes proliferate since they’re rarely addressed.

3. START: Focus on Process, Not People

Rather than focusing on who did something wrong, it’s important for leaders to focus on what went wrong – draw attention to process issues instead of the people. A process focus will encourage employees to work together to fix issues, rather than throwing co-workers under the bus as a distraction while they run for cover from blame. When employees feel safe from blame, they will talk about process issues. Rather than saying, “Who’s fault is it?”, leaders can ask, “Where did the process break down?” “Is there an opportunity to improve this piece of the process?”

When employees feel safe from blame, they will talk about process issues.

4. START: Acknowledge and Promote Desired Behaviors

As we said earlier, Dr. Henry Cloud stated, “Culture is created by what is allowed and what is promoted”. If leaders want employees to act differently then leaders need to acknowledge and promote the behaviors they want to see more of. For example: If you want people to take calculated risks and make problems visible, you have to acknowledge when an employee takes a calculated risk or makes a problem visible. You have to applaud those efforts and encourage others to do the same.

5. CONTINUE: Model the Way

This can be tough for some leaders, but the message will go a long way! If leaders share some of their own mistakes and show that exposing mistakes can lead to innovation and process improvement, then leaders are modeling the way. If leaders share that they are taking calculated risks and ask others to share how they are doing the same, this can encourage others. If leaders promise they will no longer search for the guilty and they follow through, employees will begin to believe that things will be different! These can be great examples of leaders modeling the way which paves the way for employees to follow.

Reducing blame in an organization can seem monumental, but with a focused effort from the leadership team and willingness to change behaviors and actions, it can be done!

What do you think leaders should “stop, start and continue” doing to change the cultures of the organizations?

Tracy O'Rourke

Tracy is a Managing Partner & Executive Advisor at GoLeanSixSigma.com. She is also a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt Instructor at University of California San Diego and teaches in San Diego State University’s Lean Enterprise Program. For almost 20 years, she has helped leading organizations like Washington State, Charles Schwab and GE build problem-solving muscles.
  • Colleen

    Leaders can benefit from being aware of how their actions affect culture – great advice on how to exert positive influence. I totally agree with the “focus on the process” advice as a key to eliminate the blame game – spot on Tracy!