We live in a culture of blame. That’s not always a bad thing. Blame does point us to questions of who broke something and who should fix it. Managers, teachers and parents all try to instill values of personal responsibility in their charges. Much of that instilled value involves feeling bad. We want those people to feel bad when they mess up. Especially something for which they have agreed to be responsible. We want them to blame themselves when things go wrong. We feel better when others feel “bad enough” for what they did. We may even want them to grovel.
Now it takes a lot of time and effort to discern who was responsible for an outcome, and to what degree. One approach – if everyone just takes 100% responsibility for whatever went wrong, then we can all get back to work. “If only I had done my part, this would never have happened.”
Of course, it rarely works out that way. Some people consistently take far less blame than we’d like them to, while others take too much. Indeed, we often define our best people as those who pick up the slack where others have dropped it. And as long as the job is getting done, management rarely feels the need to confront those dropping the ball, letting standards slide and having things fall between the cracks. As a result, those who frequently pick up after others often feel resentful, but may be afraid to complain. And those who regularly get picked up after have a false sense of how good or successful they are at their jobs. No news is good news, particularly in organizations who don’t actively encourage feedback.
When taking responsibility requires that we feel bad, we have moved into blame. Where we have lots of blame, we have lots of fear, guilt and shame, thus creating a fear-based organization. Problem is, we don’t learn well in the presence of guilt and fear. The fear that comes out of blame will even inhibit problem solving abilities. A systems theory view of productivity can show us how to blame the system itself, instead of each other, thereby reducing fear. A simple definition of a system might include the values, procedures, rewards and communications of an organization. When you blame a person, you may feel better, but you forget to look at how the system has contributed to their actions.
So while there is a certain workaholic satisfaction that comes from hoping everyone will take 100% responsibility, it never really works out as well as we hope. Those who take too much responsibility burn themselves out, resulting in what we call work anorexia or work avoidance. Taking too much responsibility for events over which we have little control or power always leads to depression. People regularly try to take too much responsibility in a fear based organization. Unfortunately, the best you can ever get out of such a system is basic compliance. If you want more than compliance, if you want excellence, you will have to eliminate fear from the organization. (See point #8 in Deming’s 14 points, Drive fear out.)
Given how much guilt and personal shame are woven into the fabric of religion, parenting, management and law, it is hard to imagine an effective way of getting things done without them. It’s hard to imagine how anything lasting and good can come out of an organization that proclaims, “We never want our people to feel bad about tasks where they have underperformed.”
But that’s exactly what we are called to do in a systems theory view of productivity. Rather than focus on who did what wrong and how bad they should feel, we focus on the whole system. We ask, how has the system failed us? Starting with the assumption that everyone wants to do a good job, we ask the question, “How has the system made it difficult or even impossible for them to do good? How has the system failed to support the individual success of the players?” In all fairness, not everyone will be a good fit for your new non-blaming organization. However, addressing that does not require blaming anyone.
Once we are free to look at and address where the system has failed us, we can let go of our blame and resentment for our co-workers. I propose that we need blame. We are meaning-seeking creatures and as such, we need to blame someone or something for what went wrong. Blame people and you demoralize them and make them afraid. When you blame the system, no one gets hurt and things gently improve. Blame yourself too much and you get depressed. Blame the system and you stimulate the problem solving abilities of the group. Let’s put the blame back where it belongs. It’s no ones fault how the system currently works. It just sort of turned out that way. Our job is to improve the system while honoring those who work in and around it. Let’s all just blame the system.
This has been a gentle introduction to systems theory, with brief reference to W. Edwards Deming, father of Total Quality Management (TQM). #PLENK2010