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The Blame Game

Optimize Blog - April 21, 2011 - 0 comments

Today, on the first anniversary of the Macondo Well tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico, when eleven workers sadly lost their lives, BP issued law suits in excess of $80billion against Transocean, Halliburton and Cameron International. Not unsurprisingly there are a raft of claims and counter claims, as each of the parties involved in the disaster seeks to off-load at least some of the blame.
In January a commission convened by US President Barack Obama found that BP, Transocean and Halliburton – the US company that handled the well-sealing operation ahead of the disaster – made decisions aimed at cutting costs and saving time that ultimately added to the risk of an accident. In addition Investigators hired by the US government said last month that the blowout preventer’s design was flawed, and that a piece of drill pipe trapped in the well pipe under the rig kept the blowout preventer from shearing and pinching off the well after the explosion.
The anniversary of the tragedy is the deadline for filing claims against each other and, now the legal actions are out in the open, it will be interesting to observe how the undoubted years of legal process will eventually reach conclusions around liability. BP has estimated its liability at $40.9bn, but could face tens of billions more in fines and penalties.
In business we often come across cultures where blame is accepted or is even the norm. We like to mention one of our favourite terms – ‘blame-storming’. This is the process of getting in a room after a failure and deciding whose fault it was…
There’s more to this than you might think and in our opinion ‘blame’ is often confused with accountability. It is not uncommon for leaders in development courses to accept (at least conceptually) that mistakes are a learning opportunity but, once back in the work environment, they remain keen to find out who made the mistake, whose fault it was and to determine what the consequences should be for the team or individual. It is easy to apportion blame.
However, much like “the dog ate my homework” excuse didn’t work with your grade 10 school teacher, you cannot blame others in the workplace for not getting the result that you may have wanted. Making excuses is just another form of apportioning blame.
Some people at work accept responsibility and remain accountable for their actions … they take it seriously and they are (rightfully) proud of it. Others, with an external focus on control, attribute responsibility (and usually blame) to others or to factors external to themselves. In some respects, when we decide to abdicate responsibility we are choosing to experience life from a state of passive acceptance that external influences determine our destiny. In the same way, the blaming person doesn’t feel in control of his or her life. So, perhaps, the main cause of ‘blaming’ is a lack of self-confidence. Passing the blame to co-workers reflects a lack of emotional maturity.
In many organizations, people will pass blame because they are petrified of being put to the sword. Organizations work on consequences. So if people have a hatchet hanging over their heads, they’ll move that hatchet to the next desk or department. Marketing blames the Technical department, which blames Finance which blames the Sales Team and so on. There’s nothing rational about it. It’s an irrational way of deflecting responsibility and it means no one is really performing,
So people are afraid to make mistakes in case of criticism or firing and that fear obviously inspires people to deflect blame. Organizations can prevent this kind of self-protective behaviour through a “no-blame-no-fault” way of operating. In this scenario, an organization does not fault anyone when things go wrong but rather looks for what went wrong and figures out a way of fixing it and importantly making sure it doesn’t happen again.
One year on, the human and environmental cost of the Deepwater Horizon explosion is still being counted. Make sure that the blame culture in your organization is not undermining your ability to optimize your performance.

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