Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The blame game is counter-cultural to learning

Beth Kanter wrote a post that set me thinking about blame culture and the making of mistakes. One thing we loudmouths learn early on is that the blame culture is alive and well...and the loudest mouth makes for the easiest scapegoat.

At school I was (as the expression seems to have become) all mouth and no trousers. I talked a good line in rebellion, but I obeyed the rules as if I were on rails. It made no difference. I got into as much trouble as if I were a complete hellcat. Teachers approaching our classroom from down the corridor would hear some kind of kerfuffle and enter the room declaring what my punishment was to be. The fact that I was more often that not frantically trying to finish the homework that had been sidelined by my innumerable co-curricular and extra-curricular activities made not the slightest bit of difference.

This followed me to college, where the matron once grounded me for three weeks for breaking curfew, when I had been stuck in a lift all night at a friend's hostel. No amount of offers of evidence of my innocence would suffice. On another occasion, I was awoken late at night and ordered to her office to be told, "I can hear you from here! I can't get a wink of sleep with all the noise you're making!" I didn't endear myself to her by apologising for snoring and blaming it on catarrh. As I said: all mouth.

My first 'proper' job was a very junior role in the customer service department of a blanket factory, run by a petty tyrant who screamed (no other word will suffice) at people on a daily basis. He was a real piece of work and no-one wanted to be on the humiliating receiving end of one of his tirades. As a consequence, finger-pointing (and outright lying) was a regular feature of the business culture. On one occasion, there was a huge to do, because the distribution list from one of our biggest customers detailed despatch to their various stores in multiples of 14, but the goods - thousands upon thousands of blankets - had been packed in multiples of 12. Mr Tyrant went ballistic and starting tearing strips off people left and right. And of course, the finger-pointing began. The dervish entered my office, already well on his way to bursting a blood vessel and yelling at full volume before he even crossed the threshold.

I wigged out.

I was already known as 'Bof' (bundle of fire) because I had stood up to him (and other members of the senior staff) in the past, so it was not entirely without precedent that I yelled, "That. Is. Enough! Shut up and let me talk!"

I asked him what kind of operation he ran that would put a 21 year old office junior in charge of making senior management decisions about logistics. I pointed out (loudly - and probably colourfully), that there were people a lot higher than me on the food chain, earning more in a week than I did in a month, whose job it was to make these decisions. But because he was such a bully and a tyrant, none of them was prepared to acknowledge having made this mistake, so they just kept pointing fingers until it came to the bottom of the pile and I had no-one to point at. I told him that, if he had spent half the energy on finding a solution as he had on trying to find someone to blame, the blankets could by now have been repackaged and on their way to the client. By this time, there was dead silence in all the neighbouring offices.

To give him his due, he burst out laughing and told me that I had more chutzpah than a shiksa had any right to.

But that spectre follows me even to this day. A couple of years ago, I made a decision that put me in the firing line and, instead of coming to my defence, my manager served my head up on a platter to soothe ruffled feathers higher up the food chain. The mouth is silenced when the head is plattered.

But this is something I have known since before I had wrinkles and greys. It doesn't take wisdom, just common sense:

A blame culture saps energy. It distracts from solution finding. While everyone runs around trying to find out who was to blame, in order to mete out punishment, things cannot move forward.

If, instead, energy is spent on finding a solution, lessons can be learnt, deliveries made, damage controlled, etc. etc. And, in such a culture, it is far more likely that people will acknowledge having screwed up, thus uncovering mistakes before the knock-on effect gets out of hand.

Can we instead work towards a culture of "Oh hell. I screwed up. Can we fix it?"



V Yonkers said...

My daughter told me today that the principal of her school was not happy with her when she called him out on texting while they were meeting him about an important issue. "No offense" she said (not a good way to preference it), "But I don't get the feeling that you are really listening to us and this is very important to us." There was a policy change that was made without speaking to the students who would be involved or their parents. The students were rightfully upset.

My husband and I called the principal as this was not the first time we were left out of the loop. However, he uses the same comment each time, which is just as bad as blaming someone..."I take full responsibility." And then the matter just sits there, within his "responsibility". And the problem is never solved.

(BTW, I was very proud that the group of 15 year olds took it upon themselves to address the issue without their parents. They gathered "evidence" to support their position and came up with multiple solutions that differed from the one that was being imposed on them.)

Karyn Romeis said...

@Virginia It sounds like "I take full responsibility" translates to "Whatever."

I also used to deal with issues myself at school, but I was seldom civilised about it. I usually stormed into offices or staff rooms and threw my toys out of the cot. Stupid and fruitless. Fools rush in...