Singing the Blame Game Blues

Pablo Picasso, Three Musicians (1921), Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Change within any organization is really hard, so you’d think that it would be a no-brainer to avoid adding self-inflicted wounds to the process. Unfortunately, and too often, this is exactly what happens.  I’ve come across senior managers – and CEOs – who play the Blame Game, actually making change more difficult and even impossible.

How the Blame Game song goes…

The first time I encountered the Blame Game was during an engagement to improve how a client managed their product warranty claims.  They believed there was an unexplored opportunity to both improve customer service and save a substantial amount of money. We were able to identify a number of ways to achieve both. Cause for joy, right?

It certainly should have been.  Everybody from middle managers to front-line folks knew the current processes weren’t working – it was a headache. So they were all really excited about the prospect of making things more streamlined, serving customers better, and making their own jobs easier and more rewarding.

But the CEO chose to use this new information to blame the department head for being asleep at the switch and not managing her department well.  “How come we haven’t been getting this kind of performance all along? What have you guys been doing?”

Talk about snuffing out the energy and the excitement you need to create, and harness, for any successful improvement effort. The department head and managers were immediately put on the defensive; the front-line folks went from being enthusiastic and empowered to demoralized and less engaged.

We knew our client. Unfortunately his behavior came as no surprise, but the eye-opener was that he was intractable – we just couldn’t get him to embrace a more generous leadership style. And the damage had been done. The project was completed, but not without consequences that lingered long after our work was done.

Costs of playing the Blame Game

  • Victims of the Blame Game tend to reflexively resist any improvement effort, because they know that discovering big opportunities could be turned on them as evidence that they’re not very good managers. People feel that any future improvement effort would simply put a target on their backs. Who in the organization is likely to step forward to lead or participate if the company’s “shooting the messenger?”
  • The fallout from the Blame Game creates a pervasive climate of performance fear. It’s an organizational killer. If this belief is allowed to flourish, it spawns a new class of internal blockers and resistors to any effort to change the status quo. A workplace climate of blame demoralizes the workforce, undermines employee engagement, and tears the guts out of continuous improvement.
  • There is an important strategic impact as well. In a fast-changing world, companies need to be positioned to pivot. Pivoting is the ability to look at the world as it is, assess the company’s situation and past decisions, and embrace the things that aren’t working well in order to change them. Blame Game leaders short-circuit this critical strategic capability.

All successful organizational change efforts begin with the CEO – it all starts at the top. Setting the right tone right from the start is a step that can’t be delegated, and there’s no place for the Blame Game here. The key messages to convey to everyone from senior management to the front-line are simple but powerful:

  • Where we’ve been is less important than where we’re going.
  • We expect to find tremendous opportunities to improve the business; otherwise we wouldn’t be doing this.
  • We’re not interested, and won’t tolerate, finger-pointing. We’re in this together.
  • This train is moving. Participation is expected and rewarded.
  • Constructive criticism is welcomed – and needed – but knee-jerk resistance to considering new ways of doing things is not.

I’ve worked with many companies to improve performance and when it’s done the right way, everyone is excited and proud of what’s been accomplished. It’s not about “How come we were so inefficient?” It’s about “Look what we achieved together!”

Image credit to: Pablo Picasso, Three Musicians (1921), Museum of Modern Art, New York.