Blame-free workplaces

We’re all more motivated and productive when we’re in safe and happy environments


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My data is only anecdotal, but somewhat startling to me. For three years I’ve been trying to generate interest in “creating blame-free and gossip-free workplaces.” The notion has been met with a range of responses from genuine interest to eye-rolling, accompanied by body language that clearly says, “You’re kidding!”

I’m not surprised, because though they’re easy concepts to understand, they’re very hard to put into practice, and they take a fairly long time to achieve. 

What I am surprised by is that in the last few months, there has been mounting curiosity and requests for more information. Maybe interest has increased because civility has decreased. People talk a lot about politeness being a thing of the past, tension and conflict becoming more of a norm, and appreciation and acceptance increasingly rare. 

I guess the good news is that there is energy around countering such behavior and perhaps a desire to return to kindness and respect.

In blame-free environments, it doesn’t matter who is at fault. What matters is what’s not working gets fixed. The pushback I get is the fear that people won’t be accountable. The opposite is true.

Employees are coming forward sooner and admitting that they’ve made a mistake or something has gone wrong because they know the reaction won’t be punitive. They’re more likely to hear, “Let’s sit down and figure out how this doesn’t happen again. Let’s invite others who can help us avoid a repeat.”

The other issue with fault-finding is that once we learn “who did it,” we no longer search for creative systemic improvements.

“Gossip-free” means that people talk to each other instead of about each other. If an employee complains about a co-worker, you can be supportive without taking sides by saying, “How can I help you figure out how to talk to your colleague?” By the way, it includes people talking to their supervisors about their co-workers. (I know. I know. It happens all the time, but it is still gossip.) 

Interestingly, when I ask supervisors who have two or more children what they do when one of the kids complains about the other, they almost always say, “I tell them to work it out with their brother or sister.”

Interesting that they do that at home and not at work.

Consider the benefits of a space where fear, worry, resentment and suspicion are absent. A place where the work flows because the avenues previously cluttered with destructive chatter have been cleared. We are all more motivated and productive when we’re in safe and happy environments.

Would you rather have an employee change her or his behavior, become more motivated or make fewer mistakes because he or she thinks it’s the right thing to do, or because he or she simply wants to avoid being blamed? 

Sometimes the messages are good. We gossip behind people’s backs positively as often as we do negatively. How often have we praised someone and not told the person directly? But whether it’s good or bad chatter, it’s the recipient that needs to know. 

More importantly, employees should not be afraid. Fear rarely motivates and it promotes secrecy. 

Creating a blame and punitive-free environment is a challenge, but one worth facing. It’s important to remember that a workplace without blame is not an environment without expectations, nor is it chaotic. In fact, it requires increased clarification, articulation and follow-up. These preferable approaches are usually overlooked or ignored in a punitive atmosphere. 

And what could be the downside of not gossiping? I’m told that it’s boredom. There’s no one to talk about around the coffee pot. However, in organizations that are gossip- and blame-free, when people see their colleagues whispering, they know it’s not about them. When their boss walks in and seems to be in a bad mood, they know that it’s nothing they did or they would have been told. Boredom notwithstanding, they describe it as the safest environment they’ve ever experienced. 

So maybe increased interest in blame- and gossip-free workplaces is a reaction against negativity, criticism and boorish behavior. What a wonderful form of rebellion! 

Gerri King, Ph.D., is president of Human Dynamics Associates Inc. in Concord, and author of “The Duh! Book of Management and Supervision: Dispelling Common Leadership Myths.”

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