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Don’t blame me

Comments by Richard Ferguson

The Guardian – 10.05.2010

The blame culture is rife in the public sector, especially in organizations dealing with lots of inter-agency work such as social services…

The week after a general election that resulted in a hung parliament, it’s fair to say that all political parties will be indulging in recriminations, but perhaps none more so than the Labour government – and until his dramatic statement today that he intends to resign as Labour leader, it might have been safe to assume that Gordon Brown would have been leading the way.

“Bigot-gate” taught us not only Brown’s views on Rochdale pensioner Gillian Duffy but also plenty about his management style – in particular his propensity to apportion blame. “They should never have put me with that woman,” he confided to an aide (and a lapel microphone) as he climbed into his car. “Whose idea was that?”

This quickness to point the finger is as common a problem in Number 10 as it is in the public sector in general, says Richard Ferguson, director of human performance consultancy Sensei UKE.

“Cultures of blame often obfuscate the real issues. Effort and energy are being expended on unhealthy reactions like apportioning blame or covering up mistakes, rather than identifying what the real problems are and dealing with them in the here and now.”

He argues that blame cultures are more prevalent in public sector bodies with strongly hierarchical and silo-oriented structures, pointing to large county councils in particular.

Issues of trust and transparency

Where work is ring-fenced and mistakes occur, those looking to protect their own boundaries are quick to point the finger. Issues of trust and transparency compound the problem – if workers are unsure of their own positions, entrenched in old ways of doing things or aren’t clear about others’ roles, for example.

A lack of common purpose or clear sense of direction can also contribute to a culture of blame, something that is harder to achieve in sprawling housing departments than in schools, says Ferguson.

Martin Parker, professor of culture and organization at the University of Leicester School of Management, agrees that cultures of blame are more likely in organizations involved in lots of inter-agency work. He cites social services as a classic example, routinely dealing with the police, education departments, clinical and educational psychologists and the prison service.

“Once you have a very diverse distributed set of responsibilities then passing the buck becomes quite an understandable thing to do,” he says. “However there needs to be a distinction between the disavowal of personal responsibility and establishing the cause of a particular problem. Identifying systemic failures in order to change organizational processes seems to be sensible way of conducting debate about public policy, rather than accusing individuals.

It’s important to move away from a culture of the attribution of blame and towards a discussion about responsibility.”

As Brown knows, blame is also more likely to rear its head where the public is involved, and especially when filtered through the prism of the tabloid media.

Visibility is an issue – where there is relatively little outside scrutiny because of a lack of interest in the internal workings of, say, universities, there is less call to apportion blame.

Public sector bodies dealing with issues of child safety, policing or healthcare, on the other hand, where mistakes can be life-threatening and fodder for front-page news, are more prone to cultures of blame.

“Those organizations will hopefully have strategies for dealing with the fallout, not necessarily by blaming someone else, but by pointing to the complexity of inter-agency agreements,” says Parker. “This may look as though responsibility is being abdicated, but in practise it may simply be pointing up the ways that joined-up government should be working.”

As the primary determinants of a culture in any organization, managers need to lead by example, says David Kirby, of 3 Spires management and leadership consultancy.

“Managers have a range of options to how they respond to mistakes – making employees feel bad will lead to them hiding further mistakes, becoming unwilling to try new things or trying to deflect the blame by denying responsibility.

The alternative is to treat those mistakes as lessons, encouraging problem-solving. To this end, it is important that managers constantly ask for feedback from their teams. If employees learn from bosses that it is acceptable to blame HR departments, for example, then that’s the behaviour they’ll demonstrate, leading to a culture of personal protection rather than personal accountability. “