A Culture of Blame

Many years ago, I was talking to the head of a large manufacturing organisation, employing many hundreds of staff, about issues which depressed production efficiency. One of the main things he identified was a culture of blame which existed in the organisation and which had existed there for a very long time. The business leader knew that this cultural practice was costing the business both directly in lost production and equipment and indirectly due to poor team working.

Blame it seems, is something which we all readily subscribe to. I have noticed that this issue has resurfaced in 2020 (if it ever went away) because I have spent more time than is usual, listening to news on the television amidst a period of significant turmoil and change. I have been astounded at how the news media seem to adopt blame as a central feature of news. Astounded because much of the news has been about a pandemic virus which most of the world has never dealt with and knew little about exactly how to deal with it. Leave things as they are and risk seeing the death of many millions of people. But lock everywhere down to prevent the spread of the virus and risk a collapse of world economy and all of the hardship and indeed death which that would bring. Yet given this new and untested situation, the news media seemed intent on broadcasting complaint at anything which did not go the way those with hindsight said it should have gone. The news became an exercise in the use of experts to criticise anyone actually doing anything and an allocation of blame to those in charge of doing anything (or indeed anywhere were blame might stick).

I actually remember a BBC reporter demanding that the prime minister should accept blame in advance of the next stage in action against the pandemic. Even though the prime minister in the UK is always responsible for such things. Yet fixing blame seemed to be the primary concern at many of the television interviews which took place during the first half of 2020. Reporting seemed to be a search for anything which could be thought to be less than optimal during the emergency and ensuring that the audience never missed a moment of anything which might be thought to be going wrong, and of course blaming someone for it. So much so that the nation became a nation of critics fuelled by media thirst for blame.

Should the reporting media have adopted a different stance, one which would help people to act responsibly and support efforts to combat the virus? Should the media be blaming itself, well that’s not likely. Yet this is an important issue, not the media bit but the need for blame at all. We do certainly need to learn from mistakes and that of course, means identifying mistakes and why they were made. But we can become so wrapped up in identifying the person who made the mistake that we neglect the mistake itself and the lessons which could be learned from it. In many cases, as human beings, we actually learn more from the mistakes which we make, than from many other type of education. This can mean that a person making mistakes can become the person best qualified to avoid them in the future, that’s if the rest of the population haven't already killed the person for making the mistake.

Just like the business leader many years ago, lamented the negative impact that the culture of blame was having on the business, the nation needs to have a proper think about blame and the effect it has on all of our lives.

Of course, there are situations where blame is required, for instance when a crime is committed and the guilty party needs to face justice. The difference here is that the criminal mind is intent on crime for which blame needs to be assigned. This is not the same as the person who is trying to do their best in a difficult situation and makes a mistake. Such mistakes do need to be identified but blame here is inappropriate. Any expert in any area of activity will admit both to making mistakes and to learning a great deal from them. A culture of blame only serves to cause the would be expert to hide mistakes and learn nothing from them, at least, nothing which can be admitted to. So the would be expert cannot share their expertise easily for fear of implicating themselves in the mistake and suffering the consequences of blame.

We all take part in our culture and if our culture is one where blame is rife, then we all take part in this aspect of our culture as well. I hope that I can conclude that through this aspect of our culture, we are all harming ourselves. Words such a tolerance, empathy and support are not really part of a culture of blame. Hiding blame can be a damaging thing for a society and for a nation. Yet the reason there is a need to hide blame for ones own mistakes is because of our attitude to mistakes and our attitude to blame.

Let’s be a little more honest, we all make mistakes and we all stand to learn from them. What we often need when we make mistakes is the support and understanding of those around us. But in a culture like ours, there is a compelling reason to either hide mistakes and or to deny making them. Even the unsavoury act of blaming others (who are innocent of blame on this occasion) is part of the culture of blame. Yes, blame can be blamed for rather a lot of our cultural problems. We need to face what we have become and try to change things. But changing a culture is not an easy thing.

If blame is part of the home environment, then it is going to be difficult to eradicate it from the working environment because people don’t usually subscribe to more than one culture at a time. Even children in the home environment might learn to deny their mistakes because reaction to them is typically very negative. The same goes for the working environment and for adults. If we are to tackle the culture of blame then we must first modify our reaction to mistakes made by others. We might already wish that others modified their reaction to the mistakes which we might make.

Ultimately, we need a society which learns and can share lessons learned freely. We certainly need to identify mistakes and learn from them. However, we are less likely to identify mistakes if we all react negatively and even in a hostile way to mistakes made by others. A mistake made and shared can form the focus of contemplation and learning to do things differently in future activities.

A culture of blame is a harmful culture to propagate. Let’s make it clear, mistakes are not crimes. Crimes and criminals need to be treated differently. People who, with good intention, make mistakes, are not criminals and should not be treated like criminals. Supporting those who make mistakes and encouraging more people to learn from those mistakes and indeed change practices to make such mistakes less likely in the future, will bring dividends.

If the only reason we need to condemn people for making mistakes is that such condemnation makes us feel better about ourselves (because we did not make the mistake), then we most certainly need to change. Tolerance, empathy and support could help us to improve our culture and see the benefits of this improvement within our societies.

John L. Gordon: 2020 (not a great year)