How to Eliminate a Culture of Shame and Blame

One of the most toxic elements in an organizational culture that is clearly not infused with a leadership mindset is what I call the shame and blame game. In these organizations, when a problem happens management wants heads to roll. Management can suffer from embarrassment and worse especially if the problem ends up publicly displayed such as a complaint on Yelp, Glassdoor, Facebook, or even in the news media. Because so many business leaders are terrified of such negative publicity, they stifle the organization by preventing autonomous decision making, creativity or innovation by employees. In addition to developing bureaucratic processes for obtaining approval for any little thing before moving forward, this type of organization also fosters a shame and blame game atmosphere.

Here is how a typical round of shame and blame is played.  A supervisor, let’s name her Emily, comes up with a great idea for a new way to treat customers.  She and her team decide they will build rapport with customers who seem uptight or stuffy by joking around with them and teasing them a bit. Most of the customers crack a smile when this happens and recognize that they should lighten up a bit. The new program is working well and Emily’s department begins to receive numerous positive comments from customers about the fun and friendly personalities of the employees. Emily encourages more of this joking and light-hearted banter by letting employees know how much the customers appreciate the new approach.  This goes on until one day when the joking goes a bit too far and a customer is offended and feels disrespected.  That is when the CEO hears about the joking and teasing of customers from Emily’s staff.  The CEO becomes exceptionally angry both because of the customer complaint, but also because the CEO knew nothing about this new department policy from Emily’s team and feels Emily betrayed trust by not informing the CEO of what the team was doing. Emily recognizes she should have told the CEO, but it is too late and the CEO’s anger means heads need to roll.  Emily is terminated, a new policy against joking around with customers is implemented, and all supervisors are forbidden to implement any new methods without them being vetted in a newly established committee.

The problem initiated a feeling of shame by the CEO, which was then used to blame and shame the supervisor. The new policies established may prevent this type of problem in the future; however, it is more likely that the new policies will also result in a fearful culture, lack of willingness to be creative and innovate, and a tendency to hide mistakes that do happen rather than focusing on admitting future mistakes in order to correct problems.

So what is the alternative or solution to playing the shame and blame game? In an organization infused with a culture of leadership, top managers recognize that problems happen.  They do not condone problems or recklessness in decision-making; however, when problems and mistakes do happen they engage those involved in order to teach, guide, coach, and mentor the rookie decision maker (such as Emily in our example above) so that future mistakes are less likely to occur.  This must be done with a problem solving and growth and development mindset, not a punitive mindset. While the CEO may not like it, apologizing to the customer and ensuring the concerns will be addressed could have been followed by working with Emily and her team members to recognize how to be friendly and engaging with customers while always maintaining respect. Organizations that react with a development and learning approach to decision making mistakes are more likely to have employees who will admit to mistakes, partner with others to solve problems, be more accountable for their own actions, and learn and grow leaders.