Last week I spent some time with a team who were setting out their rules of engagement for a new project that was about to start. They were quite enthusiastic about the need to establish a No Blame Culture in the team.
I pointed out to them that whilst a no blame culture was an important feature of any high performing unit, most teams fail to live up to the aspiration. The primary reason is that in the heat of the moment, the urge to pass responsibility for an error to others is often overwhelmingly strong. So how do you make sure that this important element of team culture becomes a reality? The answer is to recognize your feelings and then manage your reaction.
The challenge of a ‘no blame’ culture is that it goes against human instinct. Blame is an emotional reaction to a situation. When an event occurs which has unpleasant consequences, our brains release chemicals such as adrenalin and cortisol which raise our perceptions and prepare us for fight or flight. They are also blocking emotions. When we are in fight or flight mode, the creative parts of our brain are much less active, diminishing our ability to think clearly. So instead of taking ownership of the situation and looking for a solution, we become inert and frustrated.
These emotions are survival responses which cannot be controlled. They can however be managed. Aspiring to establish a no blame culture is a nevertheless a great starting point. At the very least this sets an important principle in place in anticipation of future problems. It can then be helpful to have a structure or protocol, first enable the separation of thoughts from feelings and then move onto to finding a solution.
When a difficult event occurs, the critical step stage is to quickly acknowledge your emotional reaction to the event, and to recognise instinctive desire to distance oneself from any possible contribution to the creation of the problem. The diagram below provides an example of a sequence that a new team might adopt when they first encounter a problem, and the instinct to find someone to blame kicks in.
Learning to manage your emotions takes some practice but if you really believe in the value of establishing a no blame approach, this is a highly useful skill to learn. The upside of building an ability to control your blame instinct is that it allows you to take back control of a situation or problem. By moving quickly through the anger/fear stage, you can now move onto collective resolution.