Sheila Heen: We need to talk about blame

Difficult conversations are the speciality of Sheila Heen. Speaking at the Nordic Business Forum 2018, the Harvard Law School lecturer discussed the patterns of behavior in the conflicts that arise in any organization’s environment.

“I have spent the last couple of decades helping leaders to have those difficult conversations,” she said. “When things happen in ways that we did not expect, we need to have conversations, and they might be with customers, leaders, employees and clients. We need to talk about blame and accountability.”

Situations arise when people are not talking to each other and might not even be able to stand each other. A blaming culture can arise, and most people have a first-hand visceral sense of how it manifests itself.

It makes collaboration extremely hard, says Heen. “In particular, it makes innovation hard, and has a huge impact on trust and morale. In time you lose your top talent. In a blaming culture nobody will volunteer to admit their mistakes. Information flow and decision making are affected as well as information flow.”

To deal with this kind of culture, it’s important to recognize that all sides contribute to the tension, and that the negative ripples can spread across the organization when the culture develops. Heen identifies two kinds of people in these situations: blame absorbers and blame shifters.

“In terms of learning and adaptability, a blaming culture is a disaster. The answer? Ideally, don’t blame people. That’s well-intentioned, but humans are wired for blame. If something goes wrong we want to know how to fix it. If we get rid of blame we get rid of accountability. We know the cost of blame but we worry about the lack of accountability. It’s a dilemma that we have as leaders. So how do we have the conversation? Rather than ignoring or trying to suppress blame, we should try to channel it.”

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