Toolbox: Getting Blame Off the Table

Blame distracts from finding useful solutions that make the systems we operate within safer, and interferes with productive change by causing defensive behavior.  That’s very logical and business-like, if that reasoning appeals to you.  But if you’ve ever been hit with that stick, you know blame hurts, and for me, that’s a good enough reason to try a different way.

There’s three tip-offs I know of that blame is going on and that focusing on individual behavior may be short-circuiting  investigation of the systems generating the problem.  By listening for these clues, it’s possible to get back on track.

  • Hindsight bias.  When hindsight bias is part of our discussion,  knowledge of what occurred as a result of an action influences the understanding of what was known and understood at the time of the action.  There are some clues in our language that this is going on.  The phrases “would have”, “could have”, and “should have” often indicate judgements about the past from the standpoint of the present.
  • Use of the phrase “human error”.  It’s not that people don’t make mistakes.  But the conclusion that “human error” is the cause of the problem distracts from looking at the system that allowed the error to occur, and focuses on who to blame. Here’s a diagnostic question to get back out of this trap: “Would another reasonable person in the same situation have made the same mistake?”  If the answer is “yes”,  then that’s a clue that more investigation of the surrounding system is needed for safety.
  • Fundamental attribution error.   When we’re explaining our own actions, we often find external causes for our choices, yet believe that other people’s choices came from unalterable internal characteristics.  Imagine the case in which a step was skipped in a set of instructions.  If we did that ourselves, we might extend explanations such as “time pressure” or “confusing instructions”. Yet if another person does the same thing, particularly a stranger,  we may leap to explanations that represent their personal failings as the source of their actions,  such as “sloppiness”.   The presence of attribution bias makes it hard to respond generously and with respect to people who may be very unlike ourselves, and it’s also hardest one of these three to spot and  challenge. A question that might help detect this is, “Would I believe this explanation if the person being criticized were my best friend?”

It’s hard to avoid blame and even harder to recover from the damage it does to trust and cooperation.  There’s no shortcut to rooting it out of  difficult discussions, but with awareness of the factors above it gets easier to spot and turn around.