Blame culture: Off message – Whose fault is it anyway?

Blame has got a bad name. But if HR wants to demonstrate its value, it really ought to start pointing the finger.

As Sir Alan Sugar prepares to point the finger for the last time in the current series of The Apprentice, struggling to make a decision over which greedy oaf should get the nod for his ‘six-figure income’ job, it reminds us that blaming people can be fun. Sugar revels in his role of business demigod and wields his stubby finger with relish each week, and the audience figures suggest that this celebration of blame his gripped the nation. Having said that, quite why he would want to employ any of the remaining contestants (gobby Clare ‘big lemon’ Young, Alex ‘I’m only 24′ Wotherspoon, Lee ‘CV liar’ McQueen, or the eternally miserable Helene Speight) is beyond me. Clearly the greedy fools have only ever been after one thing (cash) by avoiding another thing (blame).

But despite the oft-quoted “Greed is good” Gordon Gekko quote from the Michael Douglas film Wall Street, greed isn’t good – it just happens to start with the same letter, so it sounds good. But blame is best, and its time to face up to reality and stop pretending that it doesn’t happen – and that people don’t like it. The success of The Apprentice on both sides of the Atlantic proves they really do.

The patsy paradox

Paradoxically, ‘we don’t want a blame culture’ is a phrase regularly trotted out by managers and HR practitioners, business gurus and company chief executives, who are all striving to drive change, motivate their employees, inspire increased productivity, and add to the sense of wellbeing that seems to be a minimum requirement of any aspirational organisation these days. It’s almost like ‘being happy’ is now universally considered as somehow a prerequisite for business success, which it clearly isn’t. Yet, as Stephen Robbins says in his book The Truth About Managing People: “The truth is that while there may be a positive correlation between satisfaction and productivity, it tends to be moderate at best in fact, it’s more likely that productivity causes satisfaction than the other way round.”

For the fact remains that, whatever has gone wrong, there is always somebody at fault. Some clot has made a bad decision, and now the company has to pay. But why should it? Blame is not bad. Blame can be good. Good for the soul and good for business. For example, going all out to develop a blame culture has proved to be a good thing for construction firms, saving millions by reducing the risk of big industrial negligence payouts (Employers’ Law, November 2005).

Of course, many organisations – and many in HR – have tended to hide their light under a bushel when it comes to the ‘B’ word, and claim to be blame-free zones. But they’re not. What they are is a hotbed of unnecessary fearfulness. Because there’s a big difference between who is actually at fault, and the person who gets it in the neck. And the fickle finger of fate rarely points directly at the temple of the tonkhead who’s actually to blame.

When bosses say ‘the buck stops here’, they certainly don’t mean that they’re willing to carry the can. And that example from the top carries right on down through any organisation, so that a culture of blame avoidance prevails, where only the unslipperiest characters ever find themselves in the firing line.

Teflon Tone

Talking of slippery customers, former UK prime minister Tony Blair recently blamed God for advising him – or rather ‘giving him the strength’ – to give the Armed Forces the go-ahead to invade Iraq. But he’s also leapt to the defence of his successor, saying that Gordon Brown is not to blame for the credit crunch, crashing house prices, increased industrial unrest, and the 10p tax-band fiasco – not to mention the inclement weather in Oswestry – although he failed to accept responsibility himself.

Clearly fear of being made a ‘scapegoat’ is the driving force in many organisations, with lower levels of management operating with a ‘you rub my back, I’ll stab your back’ culture, while those at the top adopt a ‘you rub my back, I’ll rub my back’ approach to life.

Further down the food chain employees fear that, once again, the wrong person will be made to fall on their sword that, once again, the real culprit will somehow evade detection (and somehow gain a promotion) and that the witch-hunt will operate in its traditional manner – ‘throw them into the water… if they sink, they’re not a witch… if they float, we’ll burn them at the stake’.

Job delusion

Perhaps this explains HR’s reluctance to fully embrace the wonderful world of blame. Only two week’s ago in Personnel Today (14 May) Les Worrall, professor of strategic analysis at Coventry University, argued that it was wrong to blame employees or employers for the amount of sickness absence in an organisation. He argued that poor job design was at fault. And he may well be right. But the job did not design itself it wasn’t designed by a computer, or a fairy at the bottom of the garden, or even an omnipotent job-design god. A real person is to blame. And it’s about time they took some responsibility for their actions.

For if HR and management were upfront about the existence of a blame culture, then there would be less fear attached to it.

Of course, Sir Alan Sugar’s annual appearances as business deity proves that, since the dawn of time, the name of the game has been blame. And the sooner HR embraces this fact, the better.

Overcoming impotence

HR impotence in this regard is perhaps a function of its apparent acceptance that identifying failure is wrong – until it’s much too late, that is. In this very issue, Juliet Carp argues that HR’s hands are tied by the time a company is in trouble (see Legal opinion).

Yet surely the obvious way for HR to help businesses avoid failure is to start pointing its own finger at those who need to go – sooner rather than later. How many CEOs could resist sensible business advice that might prevent a firm from going bust or just have a positive impact on the bottom line?

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