Culture of any kind is inherently complex and imprecise. In simplest terms, organizational cultures are the most basic beliefs and assumptions that shape "how we do things here." Sometimes "how we do things here" doesn't work, and the result is failure. For example, Wal-Mart has just made a decision to pull out of Germany. Wal-Mart failed for a number of reasons, but they included an inability to properly read German consumer culture and adapt to it. Wal-Mart thinks that it is customer friendly to bag people's purchases for them; Germans like to do their own bagging. Wal-Mart, in typical American fashion, is big on smiles; Germans don't like smiling salespersons. An insensitivity to other cultures is itself a cultural norm, one hardly limited to large American companies.
In organizations, as in countries, the surface reflections of cultures are norms and behaviors. Among the most important organizational norms, almost all of which exist on a continuum from positive to negative, are trust/mistrust, active listening/arrogance, clarity/ambiguity and, what has become my favorite in recent years, problem solving/blaming. Here are a few examples of the problem-solving and blaming norms at work.
The Case of the Killer Staple: In a classic example of what happens in a blaming culture, the case of the killer staple cost a social services agency a chance for a large grant. Here is what happened: Late one morning, a staff member went to make copies of some reports. He forgot to take the staple out of the original document, and the copying machine jammed. When things like this happened, the executive director would typically yell at the offending person and wonder out loud how anybody could be so stupid. Program managers followed her lead. To avoid this fate, the staff member retrieved the document, left the jammed machine and went across the street to a copy shop to have the copies made.
On this same day, a proposal was due in multiple copies by 5 p.m. The agency prided itself on operating on the edge, so the proposal was finished at about 4 p.m., just enough time to make copies and get it downtown by messenger. Except for one thing: the copier was jammed. Nobody knew why and nobody could fix it, and, in a panic, someone ran across the street to the copy shop. Sorry, too busy to take a big rush job. A call to the government agency produced the unhappy response: the deadline is the deadline. Goodbye grant, with special, but unacknowledged, thanks to the culture of blame.
The War on Terror: In his current book, "The One Percent Doctrine," Ron Suskind describes the sparring between the CIA and FBI over surveillance of a terror suspect who was going to fly from London to New York. The CIA wanted to FBI to track the man, but refused to share information with them. The FBI, in turn, refused to conduct the surveillance. Each agency, seeing the danger of being blamed if something went wrong, backed away. As a default, and to shield themselves from blame, the CIA called the FAA and had the man put on a no fly list. When the man showed up at the airport, he was told that he was on such a list, alerting him that his activities were being watched. He never left England. He went back to work as a teacher, and two years later, masterminded the terror attacks that killed and injured hundreds of people in the London Underground, casualties, in part, of inter-agency conflict, the culture of blame and its twin, blame avoidance.
Blackout: New York City has recently had a major electrical blackout in the borough of Queens. In some neighborhoods it lasted for more than a week. Unlike all of his predecessors and most other public officials past and present, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg refused to heap blame on Con Edison, the electrical utility, saying quite simply that we should fix the problem and then figure out who did what wrong. The mass media in New York, for whom blame is akin to mother's milk, ("thousands die who's to blame?…tape at 11"), were stunned, and conspiracy theories began to circulate. Why is the mayor in bed with Con Edison? Others simply judged his failure to excoriate the utility while people were still without power to be a gaffe. In the end, what we may have gotten from this episode is one more insight into why Mayor Bloomberg's may be the most successful and competent administration in New York City history.
All organizational – and other – cultures are a mix of positive and negative norms. The goal is to nurture the positive and defeat the negative. In working with organizations, I begin a diagnostic process of putting them on a normative continuum as soon as I walk in the door for the first time. Does the receptionist seem happy, and does he or she make eye contact? How many times do I have to pronounce my name? It is far easier for me, the outsider, to do this than for anyone working in the organization. This is simply because, as in the case of any culture, staff members have absorbed these norms and values to such an extent that in most instances they are not even aware of their existence. In some ways, this situation is like childhood; since we only have one, whatever it is, it seems normal.
Cultures of blame – like most cultures and their norms and behaviors – are primarily defined by the leaders and managers. Often they create these cultures because it was all they were ever exposed to. But like cultures of mistrust, nonlistening, ambiguity and arrogance, the culture of blame and its associated norms and behaviors exact a heavy price. It is increasingly clear that problem-solving and blaming are a zero-sum game. They are mutually exclusive. If you are blaming, you are not solving the problem.
A problem arises, an accident occurs or there is an unpleasant surprise. In the blaming organization, the immediate responses are: Who did what (rather than what happened?), why I was not to blame, how I or my group can avoid being blamed, how can we bury this, what is going to happen to somebody, and how this should never have happened. These are responses that are not likely to produce happy outcomes, unless you count living to avoid blame another day as a victory.
In a problem solving organization, the immediate responses are: What happened? What are our choices for getting out of this situation? What is the best choice, and who will do what to fix the problem?
The differences between these kinds of responses are so great that I believe that we can talk about "blaming organizations" and "problem solving organizations." Why is blaming so bad? Let's look at its consequences. First and possibly most important, but least visible, people narrow their focus and avoid all risk. In this way, blaming and blame avoidance contribute to a culture of mediocrity. Success becomes secondary to not being blamed for something. Second, people begin to engage in blame shifting and blame avoidance, each of which erodes trust and openness. And, finally, people bury problems until they become big and must be presented as unpleasant surprises. Why didn't I hear about this sooner? Because everyone was hiding it because they were afraid to tell you.
What are some approaches to diagnosing and addressing this problem? As is the case with all norms, the starting point is to make it explicit. You can't deal with it if you don't acknowledge it and understand what happens because of it. Here are some useful diagnostic and remedial questions and approaches:
Step back and look at what the group does when a problem presents itself. Do people ask blaming questions or problem-solving questions? Is the discussion focused on the past or the future? Typically, in blaming cultures, the focus of discussion is in the past – who did what? – and targets people. In problem-solving cultures, the focus is on the immediate future and on the problem itself, not who caused it.
Once a diagnosis is made, and if there is an agreement that blaming norms are a real problem, zero in on
very specific behaviors. What do people say? How does blame get expressed? What do managers do, and what do staff members fear that contributes to the problem? What behaviors do we want to change? How will we do it?
"Changing the culture" is a phrase that rolls all too easily off the lips of editorial writers, politicians and think-tank people. There is only one problem: Nobody knows how to do it. What we do know how to do is change behaviors, typically through a mix of clear communications, consistency, incentives and, in some cases, penalties. The starting point is the critical step of diagnosing the situation and understanding the consequences of these negative norms and behaviors. These consequences are often things that everyone has gotten accustomed to. Once they are out in the open, it is possible to create incentives to change and visualize an alternative future that can actually be implemented.
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