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stop-blaming-other-peopleLast Friday – March 27th was National Workplace Wellbeing Day.

It was Ireland’s first such day – having been launched just this past November by IBEC who highlighted that “the total cost to the economy of days lost through absence was around 11 million days”.

That 11 million is a number that demands attention!

And Wellbeing Day is an effort to foster a culture to counter that absenteeism.  Reducing absenteeism will benefit the employees in terms of their wellbeing and will also benefit their employers by reducing the associated productivity loss.

Correspondingly, there is a lot of attention being given this week in Ireland to workplace wellbeing.  For example, the Nutrition & Health foundation’s suggestions of what companies can do includes placing “fresh fruit bowls around the office” and arranging “healthy cooking demonstrations in the canteen”.

Such aims are laudable – though impractical for many workplaces.

But there’s another dimension of workplace wellbeing worth considering.  And that is the effects of having a so-called blame culture.

What is a blame culture?  A partial definition is that it’s as “a set of attitudes such as those within a particular business or organization, that are characterized by an unwillingness to take risks or to accept responsibility for mistakes due to a fear of criticism or prosecution.“

But it’s more.  A blame culture can also see people seek to shift blame away from themselves.  And in such a culture can also see people seek to have blame apportioned to those whom they want to see perceived negatively.

Workplaces with a blame culture can be toxic – and employees in such a workplace will not perform at their best.  They might not even be absent – they may actually be present – but their productivity and creativity is actively being hampered.  Also, as an American study concluded, when an individual is always pointing to external reasons for your mistakes you won’t learn from those mistakes, so it hinders your ability to learn and become more effective”.  A blame culture prevents the upward spiral of performance.

Fruit bowls or canteen demonstrations won’t help employees working in such a culture.  And such a work environment may well also have a negative long term impact on their health.

It’s also not just fear and health effects that are the negative side-effects of a blame culture.  It’s the organisation’s performance that suffers.  Of course those who are responsible for the culture may think that they’re benefitting from it – but they are actually ensuring that the total productivity for the organisation as a whole is less than the sum of the individual parts.

The reason for that is simple – wasted energy.  As Todd Henry, author of “Die Empty – Unleash Your Best Work Every Day” says of a blame culture, “it erodes collaboration and trust and causes everyone to waste energy in the attempt to avoid being left without a chair when the music stops”.  Just think of all the energy that can be used up in trying to avoid and/or apportion blame!

Now it can be argued that human nature is at play here – that as individuals we like to think of ourselves as successes – that we strive to maintain a positive self-image.  And that this could cause us to play the blame game.

However, in workplaces those most responsible for the culture are typically those in (powerful) senior positions.  They set the tone with their visible behaviour.

Is your workplace free of a blame culture?

  1. Is it okay to admit mistakes?
  2. Is there an overt and persistent focus on excellence?
  3. Is accountability fostered?
  4. Is there a lack of gossip?  Or of what Todd Henry calls “whispers in the hallway”?
  5. Is there a lack of blaming outsiders, e.g., customers?

Well done if your organisation’s leaders can answer “yes” to those 5 questions.

If not, then your leaders have work to do!

They can start by admitting their own mistakes – and be open about the valuable learning they’ve experienced by making mistakes.

They can, through word and deed, fostering an open environment where tough challenges are addressed head-on without indulging in destructive criticism.  As Robert Baron and Scott Shane say in Entrepreneurship: A Process Perspective, destructive criticism “is harsh, contains threats, is not timely, blames the recipient for negative outcomes, is not specific in content, and offers no concrete ideas for improvement”.

Accept that you and your employees will make mistakes.  Otherwise you will accomplish very little.

You should want your employees to ask questions openly without fear.  Imagine the opposite – imagine all those unasked questions lingering in people’s minds?  Imagine all that they won’t do and can’t do without those unasked questions being answered?

You want people to be collaborative, not confrontational.

If you can keep your workplace “blame culture free”, your organisation will be more successful, will be a better place to work in, and your employees too will have more workplace wellbeing!

So do you suspect that there are potentially elements of a blame culture in your workplace?  Do you have a sense that as a whole you’re underachieving?  That your employees are stressed by the demands your work places on them?  That self-preservation is more important than collaboration or organisational success?

If so, there are practical steps you can take.

You can have an expert outside facilitator bring together your management team to take an open and deep look at how your organisation operates.

You can provide leadership training to those in leadership roles so that they’re better positioned to provide the proper type of open, progressive, learning and ethical leadership.

You can consider instituting an information and consultation forum as a constructive mechanism for engagement between employees and management.

Finally, a lot of people work in highly complex and demanding areas.  Even in the absence of a blame culture such work can be very stressful.  You can support health and fitness programmes for your staff to empower them to better withstand the inevitable stresses of work – stresses that will be there even if you succeed in stopping the blame game being played.

To get expert and professional guidance on fostering a healthy workplace call Mary Cullen, Patrick Foley or Liam Barton on 056 770 1060 or email

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