FIRST CLASS COACH: Banish blame and build up trust

FIRST CLASS COACH: Banish blame and build up trust - As the 'new broom' in the underperforming division of a major multinational, I feel sure that part of its problem is a pervading 'blame' culture - individuals cover up mistakes and are not prepared to g

by MARGARET EXLEY, leads Towers Perrin's European practice onchange and communication. A founder of Kinsley Lord, she is also adirector of HM Treasury's Management Board
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

As the 'new broom' in the underperforming division of a major multinational, I feel sure that part of its problem is a pervading 'blame' culture - individuals cover up mistakes and are not prepared to go out on a limb.

How can I overcome my colleagues' mistrust and encourage more initiative?

You've put your finger on it. Wherever there is a blame culture, you will find stifled innovation because nobody has the courage to say something is wrong and trigger the search for a better way of doing it. Faults are not picked up and, by the time they become obvious, what was a small problem has often turned into an intractable one.

To improve performance, people have to start talking about what's working and what's not. You ask what is the best way to overcome your colleagues' distrust. Well, firstly, you have to ask why should they trust you? You regard yourself as a 'new broom', so clearly you have been brought in to change things or even people. Until you can be seen as someone to be trusted, no one is going to approach you with problems, nor can you attack the blame culture directly. You have to create safety, reassure people that if they come to you with a problem, it will be treated confidentially and make sure they do not suffer for having asked a question or highlighted a problem.

Start a suggestion scheme. It will show that you welcome people's ideas on how to improve performance. Make it non-bureaucratic and reward good ideas. The hi-fi retail chain, Richer Sounds has such a scheme and whether the staff's suggestions are implemented or not, they are answered quickly by hand by the chairman, Julian Richer. Staff are encouraged to meet in small groups to brainstorm ideas and they receive a percentage of the savings resulting from their ideas. The best suggestion is rewarded with a prize such as a weekend on a health farm or a trip on the Orient Express which all helps to create an environment where people know it is safe to 'go out on a limb'.

Apart from building trust, it is also important to understand how the blame culture came about in the first place. Often it is due to a lack of openness that results in a gradual deterioration in performance. It can take years to build up and, if managers don't tackle these behaviour patterns directly, to break down. The development of a blame culture can often be tracked to previous managers' leadership or to a crisis in the past. I once worked with a major UK bank, where a strong managing director, brought in to tighten poor financial systems, created such a fear of admitting to failure that the signs of deteriorating customer services were only picked up when it was too late and many customers had moved on.

Train your managers to adopt a style conducive to a non-blame culture - this should include setting specific performance goals - and monitor their performance. Staff should be told what they need to do and how their performance will be measured. Coach managers to give balanced feedback, not only on what people do well but also things that aren't working. The reward system (including pay, promotion and general advancement) must be consistent with the performance you look for from individuals. Within a year, these basic practices will start to shift your blame culture problem and, as staff see they are not punished for mistakes but coached to improve performance, openness will grow.

Truly innovative and financially successful firms, such as 3M, have a corporate culture that allows for mistakes as long as people learn from them. 3M's chairman has publicly acknowledged that mistakes are not only acceptable but desirable for a company that is continuously innovating.

This is not the same as allowing failure to become acceptable, however.

If staff have clear ground rules and training to build their skills, and they are still failing to deliver, then you must say so and, if performance is still poor, eventually move that person out of the role. High-performing organisations allow for mistakes, but focus on their correction. Low-performing organisations hide mistakes and encourage failure.

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