Why The Effects of Blame Kills Productivity

My dad is retired US Marine Corp. He fought for our country in both Vietnam and in Korea. As a Platoon Sergeant, his goal was to complete the missions while keeping his men alive. Think of it as the reality of management under fire, only in his case the fire were real bullets. Whenever one of his men made a mistake, he always kept the mission in mind. "Forget what the hell you did wrong, and just complete the mission" was his mantra in the midst of battle. Being under attack was punishment enough for any man. There was no time to chop heads or take names while you were getting shot at.

There seems to be this problem in our society, where we threaten and scare our employees to not make mistakes, instead of motivating them to do what's right. Why in the world do we do this, and shoot ourselves in the foot? Worse yet, instead of rewarding the employee for being honest, we reward the manager who fired that employee -- like that made everything "better". Really?

We have all been there, some of use more than once -- we make a mistake, and we have to let the boss know. We think of two options -- be forthcoming and honest and take our punishment while fixing the problem, or hide the truth until we can fix the problem without anyone knowing. What typically happens is that under fear of punishment, we will hold back the truth long enough to deal with the issue and fix it before anyone finds out.

This seemed to be the case with GM, who for years knew about issues with ignition switches turning off cars, sometimes while the car was on the freeway going 60 mph. People were hurt, and people died. Ultimately, management found out and started their witch hunt, asking "who's fault was this"? Obviously if the engineer who designed the switch felt that he could go to management and let them know about the problem without punishment, he probably would have openly. But alas, someone held the problem in, and we know the outcome.

Our society, and many others, has the habit of focusing on blaming people instead of just getting the job done. We will spend money and time, in congressional hearings, or board meetings, or one-on-one tongue lashings, just to punish whomever is responsible for making a mistake. This is neither productive or beneficial for anyone. If a person stands to get punished for a mistake, he, and everyone above him, will do whatever they can to avoid getting punished, even if it means lying, cheating and stealing. It happens all the time, and way too often.

In war, soldiers don't have the luxury of looking for who to blame for a mistake. They are in battle, being blow up and shot at. They have to focus their energy on stopping the enemy and completing the mission, not on going after their own team mates. The old saying is "shoot at the enemy, not at me". When we spend time looking for who to blame, we waste precious time and resources, instead of using them to further our goals. And we also demotivate employees, by telling them that admitting to a problem means pain and suffering. It's the worst use of negative feedback, and it kills businesses. What's really bad is that we spend the time looking to blame someone, because we ourselves don't want to get punished for someone else's problem.

Think about changing the paradigm of "punish anyone who makes a mistake", into "reward someone who openly admits to mistake, and work together to fix the issue and move forward". In many people's minds, the latter takes too much effort. But the effort benefits everyone by giving employees the confidence in fixing issues with the help of management, instead of fixing mistakes while under management threats.

Because at the end of the day, it's all about the mission and the goal of the company, not about who's head needs to get chopped off...

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