It is easy to apportion blame when failures happen in a business organisation, but creating an environment where everyone shares accountability and no one individual is singled out to blame can be beneficial in nurturing a highly collaborative, effective and dynamic workforce.
Put simply, a no blame culture accepts that mistakes do happen within the workplace and workers are proactively encouraged to report errors for them to be rectified swifty, without the threat of individuals and their actions being targeted for blame. The focus instead is on creating a highly aware workforce, attuned to identifying issues and mistakes, and enabling the organisation to address these and avoid them happening again.
No blame cultures originated in organisations where even minor errors can have catastrophic consequences. These are known as High Reliability Organisations (HROs) and include workplaces such as hospitals, airlines and submarines. Since errors in these environments can be so disastrous, it is dangerous to operate in an environment where employees do not feel able to report mistakes that have been made or raise concerns about deficiencies that may turn into catastrophic errors in the future.
But the principles behind no blame cultures of focusing on what happened, as opposed to who was responsible, are transcending sectors into organisations beyond HROs, as organisations see the benefits of encouraging open, transparent and agile organisations. What are the pros and cons of a no blame culture?
Different types of workplace culture
Before considering a journey to change workplace culture, organisations should first consider how their culture would currently be described. Some examples of typical workplace cultures include:
Adhocracy culture: this comes from the word ‘ad hoc’ and describes an organisation’s tendency to take risks so they can innovate and move quickly. Most tech and start-up companies have this sort of culture and it allows them to be creative without too many barriers and be the first to market. Silicon Valley organisations such as Facebook and Google tend to have an Adhocracy culture.
Clan culture: these are mostly young, or small, family-owned companies. Clan culture derives from the ‘clan’ mentality of these organisations, where everyone feels and thinks in a similar way, whilst working towards a common goal. Clan cultures generally breed fierce loyalty and have a strong company identity. Their employees are a priority, and there is a huge focus on teamwork and collaboration.
Customer-focused culture: as the name suggests, this type of culture puts customers first and empowers their employees to do the same. Such organisations make the news for their exceptional customer service and loyalty.
Hierarchy culture: these are traditional and paternalistic in nature. The organisation has a leadership hierarchy where power and processes are important. Such companies can be risk averse and tend to focus on preventing mistakes, adhering to rules and tradition, and managing failure. Higher-risk organisations such as those in the gas, oil, finance, governmental and healthcare sectors usually have hierarchical cultures.
Market-driven culture: this type of culture is result oriented, demanding, hard-working and highly competitive. These types of companies tend to focus less on employee satisfaction and experience, and more on results and performance. Amazon, Tesla, and Apple have this type of culture.
Purpose-driven culture: their culture is founded on a defined shared reason for existing, and they attract customers and employees who share those goals and ideals. Community-focused, collaborative, and charitable organisations have purpose-driven cultures.
No blame culture: a no blame culture provides accountability within an organisation, whether that be a project failure, bullying allegations, or team underperformance, without targetting the actions of just one person. Organisations take up the mantra, ‘all are accountable, no one is to blame’. It underpins and highlights the point of a no blame culture because it supports and expects self-responsibility and accountability by all, whatever their role within a company.
Do you have a ‘blame culture’ in your organisation?
There are several factors which highlight the presence of a culture of blame within an organisation, including the presence of:
- Failure to respond to issues raised by employees
- Forgetting to talk about health and safety, or turning it into a joke
- Failure to consult the workforce on decisions relating to health and safety
- Employees beginning to cover up mistakes
- Employees often fearing being blamed
- Employees stop making suggestions or trying new things
- There are arguments about responsibilities
- There are critical emails to managers regarding colleagues
- Mistakes are blamed on a particular individual (a scapegoat)
- There is a general lack of accountability within the team or organisation
- Frequency of gossip
If such behaviours are observed or present within your organisation, taking steps towards some of the no blame culture principles may help to improve transparency and building a more open, supportive and positive workplace culture.
It may be that the organisation has policies and procedures in place for dealing with mistakes and errors, but even where these are followed, if the cultural response and management focus is perceived by workers as targeting and scrutinising individuals gratuitously, it can be detrimental to morale and performance.
Why a positive workplace culture matters
A culture of blame manifests when employees pass responsibility onto others for errors or lack of accountability. Blame cultures reinforce themselves when blame is directed to lower-level employees rather than the organisation taking responsibility itself. Taking ownership of a role or position within an organisation requires responsibility and accountability, and it is very easy to get into the habit of blaming others for mistakes or creating excuses to avoid certain tasks.
A culture of blame within an organisation harms productivity and quality of work and breaks down an organisation’s social structures by pitting employees against each other and removing trust. Rather than encouraging collaboration, support, and creativity, blaming results in employees feeling both vulnerable and uninvested in their job.
Organisations can create a no blame culture through behaviour modelling with self-efficacy and self-awareness. In the workplace, change should start at the top.
Pros & cons of a no blame culture
A no blame culture should benefit and support an organisation’s productivity and bottom line, balanced with the more ‘human’ benefits of working in such an environment. These include:
- A shared team purpose – removing competing, contradictory agendas and activities.
- Promoting a listening, mutually beneficial and supportive environment, as opposed to one of dismissiveness and regular personal criticism.
- Encouraging innovation and creativity in project development, rather than stagnation and entrenchment.
- Promoting safety in communicating ideas and concerns for change in working relationship issues and project development.
- Reducing a default system of complaints and grievance procedures, leap-frogging line management protocols or a need for whistleblowing before change can take place.
- A shared understanding of complexity. Because humans are biased, it is easy to attribute errors to individuals, even if the cause is systemic. No blame cultures understand the complexity of organisations, which enables them to better attribute errors to systemic failures rather than pointing the finger at one individual.
- Promotes a belief in honesty. Without honesty, organisations will fail to have an exact overview of where they are and are therefore less effective when making informed decisions.
- An appreciation for others. If things go wrong, everyone is more likely to understand why, rather than blaming poor performance.
- A no blame culture liberates an organisation because employees are encouraged to speak openly about problems and mistakes. Staff are empowered to be honest and open about issues as and when they occur and work within their team towards finding a solution.
- It fosters employee loyalty, promotes effective problem solving and encourages high performance. This leads to staff members focussing their energy on accomplishing more in a shorter space of time (increasing productivity).
- Employees enjoy their workdays more, which improves morale and performance. The benefits flow through to customers who experience improved quality and delivery, and better overall customer satisfaction.
On the flip side, the cons of a no blame culture could be that it denies or reduces employees’ own agency, invalidating their sense of responsibility. There may also be a risk that a no blame culture discourages an individual’s motivation to report mistakes, instead relying on other’s sense of obligation.
Creating a no blame culture
Organisations leaning towards a no blame culture should consider the following:
Provide clarity across the workforce
Organisations should be clear with their workforce regarding situations which are, and are not, appropriate for a no blame approach. They should also ensure employees are aware, and understand, the distinction.
If this is not done, the default position will be one of blame, even in situations where it would be ineffective and inappropriate, leading to employees covering their backs – a common default action in any blame culture.
Communicate the benefits
Clarity surrounding the productivity benefits and effectiveness using a no blame culture should be set out and communicated to the workforce. This includes considerations of staff retention and motivation, creativity and productivity, including changes to the organisation.
Continually embed the organisational culture
Organisations should learn and continually develop what constitutes a no blame culture in terms of questions asked, language used, and the purpose of company processes and policies. It is a waste of time and company resources to simply attach ‘no blame’ to a flowchart and expect the workforce to understand and implement it.
A no blame culture must show up in the daily language and practices for all employees. To become a culture, the no blame approach has to be appropriately introduced, continually reflected upon and improved. Trying to implement it in any other way would be a waste of precious resources.
Focus on what you know you can improve
Organisations should be transparent on which issues they are tackling and why. It is important for organisations to communicate with their employees about what they are doing and not doing to support wellbeing, and evidence of the ownership of outcomes at all levels.
Adopt a ‘human rights’ approach
Using the five guiding principles of FREDA (Fairness, Respect, Equality, Dignity, and Autonomy), which can be easily adapted and applied to the workforce for a no blame approach.
Learning from mistakes
The lessons of failure can be valuable, not only to the individual involved, but to the organisation as a whole. To maximise the chances of success of a no blame culture, employers must understand the true nature of the risk. This should be calculated with precision and not simply be a gamble.
Ensure employees are fully briefed before starting a task or project, assess the situation, and take action only when the probable and possible outcomes have been systematically weighed.
Blame is cost-prohibitive. Employers can take days when deciding which employee was at fault. Or they can help their workforce focus on the future. If something goes wrong, the starting point should be asking yourself, how can the organisation move forward? This should help to provide solutions and avoid pointing fingers at a single individual.
DavidsonMorris’ specialist HR consultants provide expert guidance to employers on all aspects of workplace culture and engagement, providing support and practical guidance to help assess, enhance and develop workplace culture for organisational benefit. For help and support, contact us.
No blame culture FAQs
What are the risks of a no blame culture?
A no blame culture has the potential to deny employees their own agency and may invalidate their sense of responsibility. It also risks a reliance on employees’ sense of obligation and motivation to report errors.
How do you create a blame-free culture?
Errors should be recognised, then used to improve chances of future success, including accepting risks, learning from mistakes, and effective communication of the no blame culture to the wider workforce.
What is no blame culture in healthcare?
The no blame culture was introduced in healthcare settings as a method to improve the quality of care by learning from errors and putting safeguards in place to ensure they never happen again.
Last updated: 12 August 2021