First-Class Coach

Let your team know that initial failure is OK if lessons are learned and the error is not repeated.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: The new company I've joined has an aversion to failure and a real blame culture. I disagree with this and think people learn through trying and making mistakes. My team is reluctant to try anything new or risky for fear it won't work and that they'll get the blame. How can I talk them out of this attitude?

A: Blaming other people for things that haven't turned out as intended is often unfair and rarely productive. It's unusual for an error to be the sole responsibility of one person or department. But the effects of a blame culture are much more pernicious than just the sense of unfairness.

Left unchecked, it can undermine the performance of an entire organisation and reduce its chances of future prosperity.

The most obvious result of misplaced blame is that when people are scared that they'll be criticised and penalised for taking action, they tend to avoid taking responsibility for the work that should be theirs. As a result, important tasks and processes are not 'owned' by those undertaking them, and the quality of output suffers. This often happens at management level, with the boss laying blame for underperformance on his or her staff, while failing to provide the level of support and challenge to people that will help them not only avoid mistakes but also excel.

The mirror image of blaming is claiming credit for results for which we have nominal responsibility but little positive input. This also has a negative effect on energy and motivation. The sweet taste of success turns to ashes for a team that has worked hard to achieve results when an undeserving manager steals the glory.

It's not surprising that, blamed for things that are not their fault and deprived of the praise that is their due, many people come to see their job as an area of low satisfaction and begin to perform at minimum levels. What incentive is there for going the extra mile in these circumstances?

A client of mine, who has successfully led his team through a rocky patch in trading, lives by the mantra 'Take the blame, share the fame'. He believes that as a manager, he has a responsibility for the performance of his team: if they fail to meet the company's expectations, it's his head on the block. If they do well, he can take some credit for his enabling management, but the praise goes largely to those who create the positive results.

His enlightened attitude encouraged his team to try new ways round old problems, even if some things they tried didn't work at first.

Fear of failure is often linked to a blame culture. It too can sap an organisation's resilience in periods of change. 'Innovate or die' is the watchword of our time, but if we're afraid to fail, how can we innovate, since by definition this entails doing unfamiliar things and taking risks?

You're right to reject the status quo of blame and fear, even though you are swimming against the tide in your organisation. You may not be able to change the whole culture, but you can create a difference for those who report to you. The rewards for you and your team will be an increase in the quality of your output and in your work satisfaction.

Tell your team frankly that you believe fear of failure is getting in the way of progress and that, with their help, you'd like to change this.

Remind them that most great inventors have ack- nowledged the role that failure played in their success. Sir Humphry Davey said: 'The most important of my discoveries has been suggested to me by my failures'; and Soichiro Honda, founder of the Honda Corporation, claimed: 'Success represents 1% of your work, which results from the 99% which is called failure.'

There is increasing evidence that the more we lay responsibility for what happens on external sources, the less effective we are at solving problems. Encourage your people to believe that they have resources that will make a difference and they are capable of finding solutions.

Let them know that initial failure is acceptable, provided lessons are learned and the error is not repeated. Encourage reviews of tasks and processes, always starting with what went well, and moving on to things to do differently next time. Openly reward those who dare to try new approaches, even when they do not achieve perfect results. You could even introduce a prize for the most successful recovery from a failure - but don't make it too valuable, or you might encourage people to make errors just to win!

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail: miranda@firstclasscoach.co.uk.

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