Saturday, November 29, 2008

Looking for Blame in All the Wrong Places

When it comes to problems in organizations, there are more detectives than consultants.

Something goes wrong and the search is on for a culprit. The "Who done it?" process begins. Was it someone who is malicious or poorly trained? Who failed to get the word about the such-and-such policy? And out of the ones who screwed up, who is more to blame? Jack or Maria?

In my experience, the real culprit is often the organization. The organization has formally or informally adopted policies and practices that produce dysfunctional results. It is getting the results that, given the situation, one would reasonably expect. Finding that problem, however, is more complicated and less emotionally satisfying than naming a person, inflicting punishment, issuing warnings, and moving on. Fixing it will require more work and certainly much more introspection. It may even require that upper management assume some responsibility.

Second to the organization in the list of overlooked suspects is the relationship. Jack and Maria are fine when taken as individuals but put them together and problems ensue. Trying to hold one more accountable than the other misses the source of the difficulties. Holding them both accountable for the relationship is more to the point. The employer is not simply hiring individual operators but is also hiring relationships. Regardless of individual brilliance or skills, a person who is unable to maintain positive relationships is not productive and indeed may be pulling down the effectiveness of the entire team.

Are there times when one person is to blame? Sure, but employers should also be prepared to examine the organization and the relationships.


Deron Schriver said...

Organizations are collections of humans, therefore all organizations have an inherent complexity. All staff members should be given regular feedback about their performance, and staff should give regular feedback about the performance of the organization. If the firm is not keeping those communication channels open, it is missing opportunities and will certainly not reach its potential.

Michael Wade said...


Good point. In my experience, organizations and managers seldom earn an A when it comes to communication.

Bruno Collet said...

In my experience, blaming the organization is usually equivalent to avoiding accountability, and often results in no clear corrective action being taken.

There should be some middle ground between hiding behind "organizational issues" and the blaming frenzy resulting from extreme interpretation of accountability (= when there is a problem there is someone to blame).

Organizations tend to propagate problems downward. Actually, they should go up. Ultimately, it is often a management problem. Even if, for example, there is a skill problem, the root cause might be the hiring process. Navigating the cause-and-effect relationships upstream will allow identifying the root cause, and solve it.

Bruno Collet

Michael Wade said...


I don't equate blaming the organization as an escape from accountability. People are responsible for the policies and practices of the organization. Many organizations, however, reward poor behavior. They usually do so unintentionally, as in cases where short-term thinking is rewarded or when undue emphasis on results leads to unethical behavior.