How to deal with a Blame Culture at Work

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Shifting the blame onto others is inherent in our DNA. It’s something everyone must tussle with daily because it satisfies one of the most important and basic human needs that we all have, and that is to protect ourselves from harm.

Removing the blame removes the perception of failure. I’m sure we have all been guilty of this.

In a work context, blame-shifting can become the norm which, in turn, leads to a culture of blame that will sweep throughout your organisation as quickly as COVID did at the height of the pandemic. We’ve even had requests for Management Training and Team Building Training to be specifically designed to help organisations overcome this deadly virus! And it is a virus. It spreads very quickly.

So, let’s take a closer look at what a blame culture is and some steps you and your organisation can take to stop it.


What is a Blame Culture?

In the workplace, a blame culture is an environment in which people (or sometimes groups of people) frequently receive the blame for errors or mistakes.

A blame culture, understandably, contributes to a hostile work environment.

When everyone is afraid, they’ll get blamed if something goes wrong, they hesitate to speak up and take responsibility for their mistakes. They might also be scared to take risks, fearing messing up and getting blamed.

A blame culture can lead to other undesirable outcomes, including the following:

  • Reduced job satisfaction and morale (employees who always worry about being blamed probably aren’t going to be satisfied with their jobs)
  • Increased employee turnover (employees don’t want to stick with a company that constantly blames them for every problem)
  • Reduced engagement and productivity (employees who are frequently on edge tend to get less done and be less engaged in tasks and projects)
  • Frequent decision escalation (employees might refer to their managers for decisions more often because they’re afraid of making mistakes — this can slow down productivity)

None of these issues is conducive to a positive, productive, and profitable workplace.


What is a No Blame Culture?

In a no-blame culture, employers and higher-ups understand that errors always happen and are not inherently wrong. They also encourage employees to report their mistakes and learn from them.

A no-blame culture allows all employees, from managers and Team Leaders to entry-level personnel, to speak up and talk about mistakes without fear of being held solely responsible for the problem.

This type of workplace culture is characterised by the following:

  • An understanding of the organisation’s complexity
  • A realistic understanding of human beings and their complexity
  • An appreciation for others and the challenges their jobs present
  • Belief in honesty and transparency
  • Frequent debriefs to process what works and what doesn’t
  • Deference to subject-matter experts, regardless of their position in the company
  • Clear behavioural expectations

In a blame culture, one person or group is labelled “at fault” when something goes wrong. In a no-blame culture, errors are seen as systemic issues from which employees can learn.

A no-blame culture also encourages creativity and experimentation. Because employees aren’t afraid of being punished for trying something new, they’re more likely to be innovative and engaged in their work.

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15 Ways To Stop A Culture of Blame

If a blame culture is a norm at your company, it’s time to make a change. Here are 15 tips to help you stop a blame culture and cultivate a healthier, more supportive work environment:

1. Learn to Spot Signs of Blame Culture

The first step to stopping blame is spotting it. Evaluate your business and consider whether you see any of these warning signs:

  • Frequent finger-pointing (blaming one person or group for something going wrong)
  • Casting blame on outside parties (customers, governing bodies, etc.)
  • Gossip and side conversations, pitting employees against each other
  • Frequent cover-ups and hesitance to acknowledge mistakes

If you notice any of these issues, there’s likely a culture of blame at your company.

2. Consider the Physical Effects of Blame

If their company or team performs well, some people don’t immediately see the problems with a blame culture. They might assume that, if the results are promising, there’s nothing to worry about.

It’s important to note that a blame culture can adversely affect employees’ physical and psychological health — which eventually impacts their performance and productivity.

A study published by Biological Psychology reveals that a habit of blame causes people to see themselves as victims. This unhealthy thought pattern can increase stress hormone levels and contribute to depression and reduced immune system function.

3. Adjust Your Mindset

Blame is biological. It’s inherent in our DNA to want to shift blame onto others.

The good news is that you can reduce the frequency with which you blame others — and improve the culture at your work — by changing your mindset.

Don’t automatically look for someone to blame or ask who’s at fault when you have a poor outcome.

Instead, make a phrase like “We’re all learning” or “We’re all in this together” your mantra. Write it down and display it on your desk, so you don’t forget.

Shifting your mindset might seem impossible at first. With practice, though, it’ll soon become second nature.


4. Share Your Own Mistakes

To change the culture at your company, you must lead by example. You can’t create an environment where your employees feel comfortable taking responsibility for their mistakes if you never own up to yours.

Start by sharing your mistakes with your team. Talk about what you learned when you “messed up” and explain the steps you took to avoid messing up again in the future.

When you share your mistakes, you send a signal to your employees that it’s safe for them to share theirs. This approach creates a more psychologically safe workplace and contributes to a no-blame culture.

5. Focus on What You Can Change

Of course, you need to identify what went wrong. However, it’s more important to focus on the things you can change to prevent the same issue from occurring again in the future.

Don’t get so hung up on finding someone to blame or belabouring the point when talking about someone’s mistake. Instead, empower yourself and your team by addressing what you can change moving forward.

6. Delegate More Often

Delegation combats a blame culture because it shows your employees that you trust them.

When you delegate often, you allow your employees to take on new challenges and responsibilities. You also give them a chance to push themselves and, potentially, make mistakes — which can be used as learning opportunities rather than opportunities to play the blame game.

Delegating teaches you the importance of giving employees autonomy and avoiding micromanagement, too. When you practice these things, you create a more supportive company culture and shift further away from one in which blame is the default.

7. Set Clear Expectations and Clearly Assign Roles

Some managers and leaders hesitate to delegate because they worry about tasks being done incorrectly.
Sometimes, mistakes happen. However, you can prevent many of them by setting clear expectations and assigning specific roles.

When you give your employees detailed instructions and access to the tools they need to succeed, you increase the likelihood of getting the job done right the first time.
You also clarify who is responsible for a specific task, which makes it harder for the blame game to start if something goes wrong.

8. Encourage Openness

When you share your mistakes, you contribute to a culture of openness and transparency at work.

Continue this trend by regularly inviting feedback from employees. Give them time during meetings to talk about their recent wins, the problems they’ve encountered, and the issues holding them back from progressing.

When you create a safe place for employees to talk about their problems and pain points, as well as the progress they’ve made, you foster a more transparent workplace and a more engaged team.


9. Change the Way You Address Mistakes

Treat mistakes as learning opportunities. Rather than viewing them as setbacks, look for ways to turn them into lessons for your team and yourself.
It’s always better for your employees to come to you immediately when something goes wrong rather than wasting time and resources trying to cover up their mistakes.

Suppose an employee knows you won’t yell at them, threaten to fire them, or embarrass them for messing up. In that case, they’ll be more inclined to take responsibility.
Sharing their mistake also allows them to fix and learn from the problem faster.

10. Use Accountability Statements

To create a no-blame culture, change how you talk to your employees.

Transition away from blame statements like these:

  • “Who did this?”
  • “This is your fault.”
  • “Why did you do [insert task] like this?”

Instead, use accountability statements like these:

  • What was the root cause of this problem?
  • What changes should we make to ensure this doesn’t happen again?
  • What can we learn from this issue?

These statements encourage problem-solving, not blame and shame.

11. Lead with Positivity and Optimism

As a leader, you set the tone for your team.

If you tend to view things negatively, your team will begin to do the same. If you lead with positivity and optimism, your team will likely follow suit.

Remember that being positive and optimistic is not the same as being unrealistic.

Optimists don’t lie about their situation or pretend mistakes never happened. However, they do focus on finding solutions instead of lamenting problems.

Positive, optimistic leaders acknowledge the current situation. Then, they focus on how to make it better rather than assigning blame or wasting time criticising their employees.

12. Be Wary of Asking Why

When you start a discussion by asking why someone did something or why something turned out a specific way, you might cause them to be defensive because they assume you’re blaming them.

Before you ask “why,” pause and consider if there’s a better way to phrase your question. For example, you might say something like, “Talk me through your decision-making process” or “Can you explain how you came up with this solution?”

These kinds of questions encourage dialogue instead of blame.

13. Use Possibility Language

How often do you use the word “should” throughout the day? Do you constantly tell your employees what they “should” do or what kinds of outcomes they should achieve?

The word should is absolutist and can sound judgmental. Consider replacing it with “could” instead.

For example, talk to your employees about how they could solve a problem or how they could change the way they address a customer.

14. Encourage Empathy

Empathy is at the core of a no-blame culture.

Remember that no-blame cultures are built around an understanding of human complexities and the complexities of their jobs. A no-blame culture acknowledges that mistakes can happen and views them as valuable data rather than moral failings.

If you want to eliminate a blame culture at work, start practising and encouraging empathy. Put yourself in your employees’ shoes and invite them to do the same.

An essential aspect of empathy is active listening. Active listening goes beyond simply hearing what someone is saying and emphasises genuinely interpreting the meaning behind their words.

When you actively listen, it’s easier to understand why someone made a particular decision or handled an issue in a specific way. This understanding helps you see things from their perspective and become more empathetic.

15. Always Ask What You Could Have Done Differently

If there’s a blame culture at your company, there’s a good chance everyone is guilty (no pun intended) of playing the blame game — including you.

Don’t stop at sharing your mistakes and owning up to your shortcomings. Ask yourself what you could do differently in the future as well.

Regularly evaluating your decisions and finding ways you could improve keeps you accountable. It also ensures you’re always striving for improvement.

Stop the Blame Game Today

A blame culture at work keeps you and your team from doing your best.

If you’ve noticed signs of a blame culture at your company, follow the tips discussed in this guide to create a positive change and help everyone thrive.

Please contact us if you’d like some help in this area. As I mentioned earlier we’ve had entire Management Development Programmes and Supervisor Training Courses focused around this where we train and develop and organisation’s entire leadership team on the skills and behaviours needed to stop the blame game. It takes time to shift the culture and it needs to start at the top.


Sean McPheat

Managing Director

MTD Training   

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Updated on: 16 November, 2022

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