The Blame and Shame Game

A science-based company invited me to do a cultural assessment focused on employee engagement, and I had the opportunity to wander around and talk freely with many employees. I learned in those conversations that the company was experiencing a high rate of errors, some dangerous both employees and to the consumers of their products. When I inquired about the rate of errors, the response was unsettling: “the reported error rate is….”. I hadn’t asked for “the reported error rate”. I asked for the error rate, the actual number/percentage of real errors. This is not semantics! What is likely obvious to you, dear reader, is that errors were going unreported…and people were afraid to report many of their errors, for fear of consequences. How can a company produce a safe product safely if people cannot report errors without fear of being blamed?!

Sooo, let’s get this out of the way right out of the gate! I am not a big fan of “blame and shame”. In fact, I am big on getting it out of our organizations and our lives as much as humanly possible! It is destructive to human spirit, a colossal waste of time, and does nothing more than create resentment, deepen separation, and undermine possibility. So why is it so rampant in our organizations?!

Probing further, I found that people were afraid of three things, and pretty much in this order:

• Being embarrassed by management, peers and subordinates, losing their confidence and letting them down.

• Being accused of incompetence by others.

• Being punished in some way, through discipline or discharge.

When I reported these findings to management, the first thing the Operations Director stated was “I need to find out who is under-reporting, so that they can be disciplined. They are failing to follow company policy!” Yikes! Of course, such a strategy would only drive the fear deeper into the culture of the organization. My advice was a very direct “no!” At the same time, the Quality Manager also weighed in, stating that the error reporting pattern had been recognized for months, and that he had already built a statistical algorithm into the data reports to estimate the unreported errors, so that they could be more confident in their reports. What?! So now, the quality experts are adjusting data, rather than getting to the root causes of the problems and insisting on good data. Not good!

In frustration, the executives asked me what I thought should happen…and I suggested that we put a team of people together to safely discuss what is happening, why errors were occurring, and what could be done about it by the employees, to resolve the errors. While they were less than optimistic about the likelihood of success, they grudgingly allowed me to do it.

Briefly, the results were remarkable. The employees identified a number of roadblocks to quality that they could control themselves, found other issues that required some minimal investment by leadership, and overall reduced the real error rate by 85%, and did it within 3 weeks. Wow! So why was this possible? Frankly, because we kept leaders away from the process so that employees could work without blame and shame hanging over their heads. When you free people up to share information and perspective, and treat them like human beings who want to succeed, most will respond! And these folks did. Eliminate blame and shame, and replace it with conversation, positive expectations, and encouragement, and great things can happen!