Who is to blame?

Guest contribution by | 01.06.2023

It is part of everyday life in companies and probably everyone who works there has experienced it: a decision turns out to be wrong in retrospect and the search for the “culprits”, the “blame game” begins.

Sometimes it doesn’t even take explicit decisions, the search begins as soon as something goes wrong. And it often doesn’t stop until the (un)culprits are found. Obviously, it is difficult for many people to bear the fact that things do not always go the way we imagine. Naming a “culprit” or a “guilty party” for a situation seems easier to bear.

The reason often given is that one wants to avoid “such a mistake happening again”, and this is also important and appropriate. From a learning perspective, it is essential to analyse more precisely what happened and who was involved and in what role. However, the form of this analysis does not seem to me to be very suitable for acting more successfully in the future (whatever that may be) – and actually this is also clear to all those involved in the search – at least unconsciously.

The acceptance of guilt

But what actually makes the acceptance of guilt so difficult that we so often try to dismiss it and that people who accept it are almost regarded as everyday heroes?

Psychotherapists (Verena Kast and systemic therapy, among others, should be mentioned here3) note that guilt is a sister of shame; both tend to occur together. Guilt is most often accompanied by shame, we feel ashamed of what we have done because it was and/or is obviously inadequate in the eyes of others and of course our own.4

Transferred to companies and organisations, therefore, the very concept of guilt often triggers shame in those affected, an unpleasant feeling that we like to avoid. So what could be more obvious than to transfer this feeling to others?

If one follows this idea, then it is ultimately shame that torpedoes the much-vaunted error culture time and again. The combination of guilt and shame is a classic in therapy; only when the shame has been reduced can the guilt be removed or, in other words – and here lies a solution approach – self-awareness and responsibility be built up.

We can learn a thing or two from this process in therapy for the business context.

A suggestion to do it differently

Reducing shame means first of all self-knowledge and that I do not feel myself responsible for everything and anything. This requires a healthy self-awareness (also in the sense of the word) and at the same time a certain humility that I cannot determine and shape everything myself.

From such an attitude, which can certainly be described as healthy, I can accept my own mistakes and see them as a learning field to do better next time or to seek help if I don’t learn.5 From humility comes the recognition that I don’t know everything and can’t do everything right and that there is much more uncertainty in this world than we would like in our striving for control.

Of course, the environment can also contribute a lot to ensuring that shame is not a secret guest in meetings or learning processes. Already the rephrasing of “Who is to blame?” into “Who is responsible here and who was involved in what happened?” prevents the explicit invitation of shame. Implicitly, of course, it is still often on board because of our conditioning – but it becomes easier when we are not explicitly triggered.

Another aspect is letting go of our need to feel that we have everything under control. Only then can we also accept that sometimes no one is to blame instead of excitedly pushing it back and forth, sometimes then even into fields that were not originally the issue at all.

Where does the blame take us?

In a mature organisation with mature employees, the question “Who is to blame?” certainly leads to a constructive approach, as we saw in the above example with the dual student. But this requires not only maturity, but also a good personal day-to-day attitude on the part of those concerned, which is why the boss initially thought things through himself, presumably to prevent self-reproach or accusations from others from coming to the fore.

In most cases, however, the question of who is to blame always leads to a destructive downward spiral to the point of demotivation and blockades due to mutual accusations of guilt. This can be broken by talking about responsibilities instead of blame, whereby the attitude behind this should be congruent.

For a real culture of mistakes, however, more is needed, namely people with a healthy self-awareness of their own abilities as well as their own limitations. And it needs people who have dealt with their own shame and are willing to gradually let go of it.



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[1] Learning is not a sexy subject. Or: Learning from Scotty.
[2] The undermined project term and its consequences
[3] Verena Kast
[4] Sometimes we are ashamed of others – the so-called “other-shame”.
[5] What error distinguishes you?

By the way, the RACI matrix offers a nice way of clearly presenting responsibilities.

Astrid Kuhlmey has published other articles in the t2informatik Blog:

t2informatik Blog: Is the world getting more complex?

Is the world getting more complex?

t2informatik Blog: PMO and Uncertainty

PMO and Uncertainty

t2informatik Blog: Letting go is the new way of planning

Letting go is the new way of planning

Astrid Kuhlmey
Astrid Kuhlmey

Computer scientist Astrid Kuhlmey has more than 30 years of experience in project and line management in pharmaceutical IT. She has been working as a systemic consultant for 7 years and advises companies and individuals in necessary change processes. Sustainability as well as social and economic change and development are close to her heart. Together with a colleague, she has developed an approach that promotes competencies to act and decide in situations of uncertainty and complexity.