"The Buck Stops Here" - Harry S Truman
Last week I wrote a blog on conflict, blame and finger pointing which seems to have touched a nerve amongst readers and I can understand why.
Blame seems to be such a deeply entrenched part of the way we communicate. Most people want to avoid humiliation and accepting the blame when something goes wrong does open the door for humiliation. Humiliation equals shame and shame is one of those primitive emotions that can feel overwhelming.
Even a small mistake can trigger shame and feeling disgraced; pointing the finger of blame can be an unconscious reaction to avoiding humiliation and a first line of defence.
The impact of this within the workplace, of course, is that a 'blame culture' becomes the norm and the finger pointing becomes so prevalent that it can create a climate where people don't take responsibility for much at all. Blame cultures can leach the motivation out of the people who work within them and that in turn inhibits inspiration, creativity and healthy team working.
So what happens when the issue of Leadership comes into the equation?
From where I sit, blame and leadership are completely incompatible. A true leader doesn't blame other people, even when it really is someone else's fault! Good leadership means unpicking what went wrong without apportioning blame. Good leadership means helping others take responsibility for mistakes without humiliating them or treating them in an infantile way.
But because so many leaders do function within a blame culture, it's really hard for them to lead with integrity and avoid making others culpable.
Have you noticed when CEOs, public officials or others of a similar ilk are forced to make public apologies how difficult it is and how uncomfortable and inauthentic they look and sound? To me those are the kind of leaders who find it extremely difficult not to try to wriggle out of being held accountable.
President Truman famously had a plaque on his desk that said "The buck stops here" which was all about him taking responsibility for any decisions he made. Quite the opposite of those people who want to 'pass the buck' as quickly as possible.
I'd be suspicious of any leader who accused others rather than shouldering the blame. Good leaders should never, ever put someone in the position of feeling shame or humiliation. The other person may actually feel really bad but it is the leader's role to ameliorate that and reassure his or her colleague/s that though they may have made a mistake, it's not the end of the world.
I still have a vivid memory of making a whopper of a mistake over 35 years ago early in my career. I worked for an organisation with the opposite of a blame culture - it was a nurturing culture and a lot of people were more concerned about my being OK than about the mistake I had made. That attitude made it possible for me to get back on my feet, re-enter the fray and rectify the problem I had created. At no time did I feel criticised, belittled or reproached.
The people who looked after me (I was a guilty wreck for a while) represented the kind of leader I aspired to be; one who is more interested in the welfare of the people they work with than in making people feel small because they screwed up.
To summarise; Good leaders don't:
- make people feel guilty
- humiliate colleagues, especially in front of others
Good leaders do:
- take responsibility.
- nurture the people they work with.
- help rectify mistakes.
- admit when they've got it wrong.
- accept that the buck stops with them.
By Jo Ellen Grzyb, Director, Impact Factory