Blame Culture: “Who Gets Shot”

I read a blog post by Lance Weatherby that epitomized everything I think is stereotypically wrong in large organizations and was worth commenting on. Lance opines:

Blame Culture via TankWhen it comes to roles and responsibilities a way to add a little clarity is to think in terms of who gets in trouble if something goes wrong (which is very different from who gets credit when something goes right). I call this who gets shot….

Imagine the team sitting around a big conference table. Imagine a little tank sitting in the middle of that table. The tank turret is always rotating and turning toward someone. The key is to solve the pressure point before the turret stops rotating and the gunner has time to take aim.

If we are not moving out product fast enough or the product we have is not functioning properly the turret turns to the CTO.

Market managers miss their numbers? Here come the tank. Sales reps don’t generate a certain amount of revenue. Here comes the tank.

As I noted in the comments, I could not disagree more strongly.

There is a huge difference between responsibility and taking the blame. Click To Tweet

This analogy has entirely missed the point. But the view of internal office politics (in addition to external competition) as war is quite common. In his defense, Lance also notes:

As a leader it is my role ensure that as many of the troops as possible make it through the battle without taking a bullet. I don’t want anyone to have a gun pointing at them.

I used the tank and gun analogy to explain things to my team. Instant clarity. Communication is key to clarity and sometimes little analogies help communication.

Yes, it’s a clear message. Not exactly subtle. The picture of me in a disco jumper is more subtle.

The message here is that anyone who makes a mistake will be fired. They won’t have a chance to learn from their mistake. They won’t have an opportunity to fix it.

Blame Culture can Blow Your Head OffA tank will blow their head off.

And who is driving the tank? It’s not the competition… they’re trying to shell the whole team. The tank driver in this analogy is of course the CEO who is responsible for hiring and firing.

Some typical symptoms of this sort of blame culture:

  • Ridiculous amounts of CYA cc:s on emails
  • Endless meetings to debate decisions and make sure blame is as diffused as possible
  • Passing the buck down the line
  • Corporate backstabbing
  • etc.
I've seen a blame culture work. I've also seen it fail spectacularly. Click To Tweet

Notably it tends to fail when you’re in a rapidly changing environment that necessitates learning. In highly stable industries without impending technological changes, you’re probably fine for quite a while.

If that’s the sort of culture you want to live in, great… more power to you. If you want an agile company where people can deal with change, take risks, and take responsibility, this is a poor message.

In Lance’s defense again, he notes in the comments:

I did not mean to imply that someone that makes a mistake will be fired, that depends on the type of mistake.

I am all about responsibility, measurements, and accountability. I do not encourage blame cultures. I encourage performance cultures. Non performance is unacceptable.

In Western cultures, misunderstanding is the responsibility of the speaker, not the listener. And certainly a tank which is about to “blow your head off” is not a nuanced metaphor carefully aimed at fine tuning a deep understanding of responsibility.

If we’re offering up slightly unorthodox analogies, think of your company like a car. If something is wrong with your spark plug, you don’t shoot it. And threatening it with violence isn’t going to prevent it from getting dirty in the first place.

Perform regularly scheduled maintenance and encourage various engine parts to make odd clunking noises when something is beginning to go wrong as an early warning system.

Discussion (4 comments)

  1. Jascha says:
    24.09.2011.

    I have seen all of this with larger companies I work with. This is SOP for large organizations like Unisys, IBM, and banks for sure. It is quite sad to watch it occur, kind of like a car crash in very slow motion and nothing you can do about it. Enjoyed the post!

      1. Javier Dominguez says:
        27.11.2011.

        One interesting development in a blame culture where there is still more money coming in than going out. Leadership tends to expand roles and responsibilities by adding additional layers in the form of departments, bureaucracy, procedures and personnel. This validates the above-mentioned fact about how incompetent companies trying to diffuse the blame by spreading through each layer a share of the collective incompetence.

        A company I worked for (which shall remain nameless) excelled at creating new positions, no one even heard off, every month. Looking at the internal job board, new positions would be posted and filled within days. Rather than promote from within, management brought in their cronies from other failed enterprises (which all of the sudden started doing better when these people left) or recruited using head hunters, creating and army of “yes” people with little knowledge of the business and company culture.

        1. Tristan says:
          27.11.2011.

          lol…what’s your favorite unnecessary position?

          Mine is “relationship manager.” Never figured out what that guy did but he was accurately described to me before meeting him as “a gatekeeper without an accompanying fence.”

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