How to spot a hidden blame culture

Changing the way we communicate at work can have a dramatic effect on the amount of confrontation, say Jenny Bird and Sarah Gornall

How to spot a hidden blame culture

The most important contributors to a positive organisational culture are authenticity and honesty in leadership, acceptance and acknowledgment. Clear communication and checking that we have heard each others’ messages correctly are also vital for learning and development.

This is the very opposite of a blame culture. Yet we don’t really know how to counter this insidious beast when it creeps up on us.

And creep up it does, because organisational culture is rarely designed and delivered by managed process, however much work we do on vision, values and mission. In a sense, culture is nebulous, invisible because it’s not recorded, or what is recorded is more a matter of theory and aspiration than lived experience. It grows through the interactions of people and groups and from their responses to leadership and each other. 

Many of the clues to what’s really going on are linguistic – repeated words or phrases that, like the tip of the iceberg, conceal submerged habitual ways of thinking. 

Listen out for key words:

  • 'But' – especially in “yes, but”, meaning “I’m pretending to agree with you before throwing scorn on your idea.”
  • 'Why?' – as in “why did you do it that way?” meaning “there is a much better way (probably mine) which you are too silly to notice.”
  • 'You/he/they made me' – as in “you made me angry”
  • 'I had to' – as in “I had to clear up after you”
  • 'No-one' – as in “no-one thinks this is important”
  • 'Someone' – as in “someone left the photocopier jammed again without trying to sort it out” 

… and a whole series of patronising phrases, pointing the finger at a defective “you”:

  • “What you don’t realise…”
  • “Have you considered the actual figures ...”
  • “When you’re more experienced …”
  • “What you should be doing now…”

Implied criticism from person A impacts negatively on person B. One assumes moral superiority and unspoken power. The other may lose the ability to explain what seemed a perfectly reasonable course of action. Neither explores what’s really going on. Neither takes full responsibility for themselves. The chances of a learning culture diminish. 

At the heart of a strong and positive culture is responsibility. Each person’s ability to take responsibility for their own work, achievements, mistakes and behaviours. Everyone’s ability to recognise that others do things differently and allow them space to take responsibility for themselves: to encourage, acknowledge and support colleagues; to communicate clearly and effectively with each other, check understanding and agree focus, tasks, actions and expectations. 

Alternatives for a more positive culture include:

  • Instead of "but", first acknowledge what’s been said, then offer your alternative as a build, using "and". For example, “What I like about your idea is X, and I think we could Y”
  • Avoid “why?” which often triggers a defensive reaction. Try “Tell me about how you did it” 
  • Use assertiveness techniques when tempted to tell people they “make” you feel a certain way
  • Introduce possibility rather than judgement: use “could” rather than “should”
  • Move towards a win-win approach: Use “we” to come up with solutions

This is about open productive discussion rather than debate. In a blame culture, we point out flaws in other people’s ideas and arguments, try to score points or make others look bad. In the positive game, we recognise everyone’s part in building the whole, endorse, offer specific positive feedback, build on each others’ ideas and create synergy to produce better inclusive results. It’s our choice.

Jenny Bird and Sarah Gornall are business leaders, executive coaches and co-authors of How to Work with People… and Enjoy It!