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Black Marks and Gold Stars

“The way to start would be, first, when we feel the tendency to blame, to try to get in touch with what it feels like to be holding on to ourselves so tightly. What does it feel like to blame? How does it feel to reject? What does it feel like to hate? What does it feel like to be righteously indignant?” – Pema Chodron

Call me a Luddite, but I don’t trust technology. I love the Internet and my MacBook and a handful of shiny apps–all of which carry the promise of predictability and reliability. Yet if any of my technological device-beloveds fail, I’m sorely disappointed because life and work do not flow as smoothly as promised. It’s easy to forget that so much of the tech we use is dependent on human factors. One misplaced character can down a system and cost a company millions by the hour. Inside of a company under that situation, someone’s job is likely on the line. It can seem so easy to point fingers and assign blame and fire someone, but who knows what all the dominos were that fell into place to create such a scenario.

What is the relationship we have to praise and blame within our organizations?

Life is pretty complex, as we know. The confines of office walls don’t shelter us from that complexity. When we walk into our workplaces, we bring ourselves and all of life with us, and we delude ourselves if we think otherwise. Are you exhausted? Has one of your kids been unable to sleep for months on end? Has someone close to you been diagnosed with cancer? Have you been stressed due to a strained relationship? So much of what goes on in our lives follows us to work and influences our decisions.

One of the most potent questions we ask in our workshops–which often leads to a practice of how teams check in with each other–is how are you? This one question alone quickly opens up real conversations. It shows immediately how we inherently live an undivided life, in which work and the rest of life are not separate. We can try to fool ourselves that work and life are divided, and that last night’s fight with our spouse didn’t track it’s way into the office. Or, that your depressed and struggling young adult child isn’t showing up in your meetings.

When it comes to accountability, are we resting on a sufficient cause and effect line of reasoning when it comes to assigning blame or praise in our organizations? Are we too quick to point a finger, fire, or give praise? What’s behind all of this?

When something happens whether it be a success or failing, there’s a story we have about what made that happening possible, and that story makes us feel somewhat better because we assume that we know the direct cause and effect. We know how to repeat the successes and avoid the failure in the future. Yet, it’s rarely that simple. Lest we fall into a blaming culture, holding people or persons solely accountable for failings as if their life (or job) is on the line, or knowing who gets the gold star, we must realize that it’s typically not any one thing that creates an outcome. The need for a story–for a cause to the effect–give us a strange peace of mind in the threat of uncertainty. In the co-dependent arising of reality, however, we have to wonder how much control we have over anything.

When things go right, how much of that has to do with one sole person? Are we forgetting about all the factors that lined up for something to be ushered through successfully?

If you think about the toxicity of workplaces past or present, how much of that was expressed in constant fault-finding and blaming? How does it feel to be in an environment like that?

Dave Zweiback, our podcast guest in this episode, ponders the ways in which we can create blameless cultures. He notes that greater awareness is crucial to our organizations in respect to posting blame and offers the practice of using a blameless post-mortem to understand and learn what really went down for big wins and big losses. This practice takes time and patience — not something we always feel like we have in a do more faster startup culture. By not slowing down to look more closely, we are not only limiting our understanding in situations when the shit hits the fan and blame is fast-placed, but we also create a reign of fear that can reverb through an organization if quick uninformed decisions are made.

As Jerry notes, “Sometimes things just don’t go right, and it’s actually more helpful to understand what happened than it is to seek to figure out who did it.”

There’s rarely just one story about ‘what happened.’ It’s more like a discourse on how to make Fish Soup; in other words, as author Anne Fadiman writes, “that the world is full of things that may not seem to be connected but actually are; that no event occurs in isolation; that you can miss a lot by sticking to the point…”

In the book Fierce Conversations, author Susan Scott talks about the beach ball theory. Namely that if you put a beach ball in the middle of a conference table, everyone sitting at the table would have a different view of the beach ball. Replace ‘beach ball’ for ‘the issue,’ and everyone would have their own account (or story) of the issue and what happened, what they see, what it means, what they’re concerned about, etc. Fierce, Inc.’s CEO, Halley Bock explains the significance of this for leadership:

“Imagine your company as one giant beach ball, where every employee is occupying a different colored “stripe” and experiencing reality from their own unique vantage point. As a leader, your main objective should be to make the right decisions for your organization, rather than be right. In order to do so, you must accept that while your “truth” about the company is valid and important, it is not the capital “T” truth. Rather, every individual owns a piece of the truth and it is essential that you look outside of your own viewpoint to understand as many stripes on your beach ball as possible. Only then can a solid decision be made based on ground truth.”

In this multi-variant universe of possibilities in which we all dwell, regardless of if we choose to recognize it or not, there’s no one answer, even though we wish it were that easy so we can handle the discomfort of uncertainty. The thing failed because … so-and-so missed something, or maybe because they were malicious, or perhaps there was that one long email sent late at night that someone didn’t really read but replied OK to anyway, or because someone else hasn’t slept in 3 months because of stuff going on at home.

There’s a much larger fish soup story to most of what goes on in our organizations. Stopping to listen, understand and learn from all the contributing forces–at least the seen ones–creates a space of clarity and insight as an alternative to the fear of blame and shame. Blame and shame cultures are terrifying and shut people down. They deter taking ownership and responsibility of issues and undermine honesty by breaking the sense of trust that it’s safe to do so. “A first step in creating the non-violent organization,” Jerry notes in this episode, “is to actually remove blame from the process.”

How do you respond to what happens when it happens? How can you seek for full understanding of dynamic forces at play and avoid falling back to blindly pointing fingers at one piece of a potentially much, much larger puzzle? What might shift in your organizations if you do so?


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