Take the 2-minute tour ×
The Workplace Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for members of the workforce navigating the professional setting. It's 100% free, no registration required.

When any kind of failure happens at my company, the first question everyone in the hierarchy asks is "Whose fault was it?" I remember once overhearing a conversation where someone replied "It's no one's fault..." and the managers around her laughed and said "It's always someone's fault."

There have been cases where I was able to quickly pinpoint the reason and the solution to problems that arose in my own team, but my bosses were not satisfied until they knew who was to ultimately blame and penalize.

I am thus sometimes afraid to take responsibility/ownership of something I can easily solve simply because I honestly don't know "who" is to blame. And saying "I don't know who..." can come across as being slightly ignorant.

Under such a regime, how do I respond and try to solve such an issue?

share|improve this question
8  
Someone once said to me "Successes should be awarded to the team while fails assumed by the manager". I found it really inspiring and I'm sticking to this since then. –  Florian F. Jul 4 at 8:48
5  
If nobody is at fault, then the processes are suboptimal. Processes are management domain, so if "no one" can be pinpointed, this reflects badly on management. –  Simon Richter Jul 4 at 10:51
8  
I know this is a cliche, but in this situation I'd take ownership of your resume... –  corsiKa Jul 4 at 17:50
2  
Second @corsiKa's comment: Sticking to a company with clueless/dysfunctional management is bad for your health and bad for your career. –  Aaron Golden Jul 4 at 22:59

10 Answers 10

There are a few tacks you can take here.

  1. "It's everyone's fault." I usually use a variant of this for production problems. In software, for a problem to get into the user's hands it has to be missed by the person who wrote the code, the person who did the code review, and multiple testers. (For a programming defect.) Who typed the defect isn't the issue unless he/she is constantly creating defects. (As noted in the comments, see if you can get the person asking the question on the list).
  2. "The people who work on the most critical parts of work are most trusted. They make way fewer mistakes than the average person, but mistakes are more visible when they are made." And then stick to this like glue. Even if I plan to give a name, I will go through this routine for a good while first.
  3. "Here's how we fixed the process to make sure it will never happen again." This is essentially a form of process improvement combined with distraction. Even if the solution is, "we provided more training to person X."
  4. "We are busy fixing the problem right now; it isn't the time for fingerpointing." I did this once during a production problem. I didn't have time to talk to management about the topic at the time and deferred the conversation. It did circle back to one of the top 3 approaches eventually though.
share|improve this answer
2  
I generally use a variant of #1; "we're all responsible". And I make it clear when I say it that "we" also includes the manager who is so intent on finding someone to blame/punish. Works quite well. –  aroth Jul 4 at 7:09
8  
I also think that (1) is the most powerful weapon. When asked who is to blame, give a list of anyone who conceivably could have prevented the problem. If you can get the person asking the question onto that list (for example because they requested short-cuts in order to meet some very tight deadline), so much the better. If management just wants a single name and isn't willing to hear the "whys", then the single name is the most senior person on the list. But in that case they're asking you a question containing a false assumption, so your answer will be untrue. Do what is expedient. –  Steve Jessop Jul 4 at 8:21
1  
Ohh, 2) is really really good. Never encountered that one before. –  drxzcl Jul 4 at 9:02
2  
I wonder if it might help to initiate a conversation with your own supervisor at some time when there's no crisis unfolding. You might ask her the same question you asked us. "How can our team engage in problem-solving without ruining your department's reputation, given that it's customary to do a lot of blaming?" You position the problem as one of DEPARTMENTAL reputation, not personal reputation. –  user987654 Jul 4 at 12:18

I see three ways of tackling this:

  1. Get good at politics
  2. Enlist someone good at politics
  3. Start looking for a new job

Praxis

If your company consistently plays the blame game, then politics are deeply embedded and there is no way around them. Are people who don't play politics blamed more often? If so, you may want to teach yourself how to get good at them.

Look at how other people determine blame for these sorts of issues, and follow their leads. Figure out who you should blame, and do it to the right people, keeping you safely out of harm's way and giving you visibility.

Gnosis

Playing politics isn't for everyone. Sometimes people would rather focus on fixing the problems. In that case it's good to recruit a politically-apt ally (like your supervisor or manager) who is good at the political stuff and respects your skills. You focus on solving the problem, they handle the political side.

They will be the one getting the visibility, but if there is value to what you do (actually solving the problems), it should be in their best interest to keep you around because you make them look good. This should reduce your stress as all you need to do is tell them when you find a problem, let them know how you will fix it, and trust them to handle the political details.

Sophia

If the very concept of having a blame culture repulses you, it's time to take those problem-fixing skills and find somewhere else that suits you better. Brush up that resume, start applying for jobs, and do your best not to get embroiled in company politics until you are ready to leave.

To change company culture you have to be embedded in it, because companies love resisting change from people who don't buy in to the existing culture that they are invested in. It is far easier to find a company that shares similar ideas to you than to convince an entire company to change how they think about problems.

share|improve this answer
4  
What are your headings? Praxis Gnosis and Sophia? –  corsiKa Jul 4 at 17:51
1  
@corsiKa Greek: Praxis is the commonly taken action, Gnosis is knowledge, Sophia is wisdom. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gnosis –  Captain Giraffe Jul 4 at 22:34
2  
As Captain Giraffe explained, they're types of knowledge from Greek. Roughly speaking, Praxis is political smarts, Gnosis is knowledge, and Sofia is wisdom. The point is that you can focus on getting political (Praxis), focus on being an expert at what you do (Gnosis), or find a place that better suits you (Sofia). –  jmac Jul 5 at 3:14

A phrase I like to use a lot is:

It's not our fault, but it is our problem.

I would use this liberally before the problem is fixed. Optionally, you could say:

It may not be our fault, but it definitely is our problem.

Or:

Right now I don't care whose fault it is, but I do know it's our problem and we need to solve it.

Once it's fixed, have a lessons-learned conversation and focus on the actions to be taken to prevent a recurrence. This may involve digging a lot deeper than "X clicked the wrong button" to things like "Why was X the only one there to click any buttons?" "Why did X not know the consequences of clicking that?" "Why did nobody else take steps to prevent this before?"

When your bosses focus on penalizing, it can be very difficult to point them towards a different path. Detailed investigations that reveal it was actually those same bosses who didn't approve the overtime, or the training expense, or the headcount increase, or the upgrade to the latest version, and caused this problem could cure them of that tendency. After all, if someone with 3 months experience is the only one around when things go bad, and makes the wrong call, is blaming that inexperienced person and punishing them actually going to fix anything?

I would suggest you work hard on two separate goals:

  • postponing any who-to-blame, how-to-punish talk until the problem is solved
  • don't settle for superficial results on who-to-blame: dig deep into process and culture and management, every time.

Ask "Why would that happen?" and "Is that how it usually goes?" a lot. This includes suppressing your urge to say "it was my fault, I didn't test XYZ before deploying." Why didn't you? Why doesn't anyone? Who told you there wasn't time or money to do that every time? Who got you so tight up against the deadline or budget that there wasn't money or time on this occasion? It's hard. Do it anyway. Both you and your company will be better for it.

This may change the who-to-blame culture over the long term. Even if it doesn't, it should make it more bearable over the short term.

share|improve this answer

You can try approaching your supervisor one on one to discuss this challenge, but if the blame game is deeply embedded in your company's culture, there may not be much you can do until the culture is fixed. With that said, changing a company's culture can be a huge undertaking, so you may be fighting an uphill battle here.

Some strategies that I've used in the past:

Cultivate Allies

Chances are there are other individuals in your company which have a similar mindset as you and would rather fix the problems and move on. Find those other people, talk to them one on one, and determine how to work against this as a group. Management may also be more receptive to multiple voices speaking out against this instead of you alone.

Propose Process Feedback Loops

Sometimes the blame game stems from the belief that punishment is the only way to prevent errors from happening again. There are other mechanisms that can be put in place to fix those type of issues and make the finger-pointing unnecessary. The Continual Improvement wikipedia article has some example processes that may suit your needs.

Leave

If you feel that the environment is not one that you want to be a part of, look for another job. It is unfortunate, but sometimes this type of culture extends all the way up to senior leadership and it is not really possible to fix it. If that is the case, it is better to move on under your own terms then get booted out later on for being at the wrong end of a mistake.

share|improve this answer

This reminds me of an old joke:

Two men are running from a bear and suddenly one of them starts laughing. The other man asks "What's so funny?" To which the laughing man replies: "I just realized that I don't have to out run the bear, I just have to outrun you!"

Finger-pointing in the workplace can lead to this sort of environment, people can become more concerned with making sure the finger isn't pointed at them rather than working together to overcome the problem.

If I'm leading a team I would accept responsibility for the problem even if I didn't cause it directly. If one of my subordinates failed, and I'm responsible for overseeing their work I'm ultimately responsible for their failings. This may be an outdated view of the chain of command, but I think it's respectable and it can help to build loyalty within a team.

That is not saying that accountability isn't important. Occasionally the guy who makes a habit of provoking the bear deserves to get bit, but don't let him get mauled by your superiors. Take the brunt of the abuse from the higher management, and then dish out what you think is appropriate within your team.

Eventually the right sort of management will recognize the pattern of you taking responsibility for your team and they will probably stop asking who's fault it is. They may even respect you more for taking this approach and your team will definitely respect you for stepping in on their behalf.

share|improve this answer

Why is it that important to you to not name an individual? In my humble opinion, finding out who did something that was suboptimal so that you can ask them:

  • Why they did it
  • What help they need to avoid doing it again

is a key part of continuous improvement. You might even find that they were technically right all along and it was the process that couldn't cope with them doing the right thing that was at fault.

It sounds as though you're assuming that people at the management level want to find someone to pick on. Do you have any evidence for this, like a track record of doing so, or is it just speculation? Contrary to popular belief, becoming a manager doesn't strip a person of their sense of reason, and behaving like a sociopath (bullying someone for their mistakes) is something that pathological people will do regardless of the size of their desk. If this still bothers you, you could direct the conversation along the lines of "Can you give me an outline of the steps you intend to take with such an individual, assuming there is one?" - with a mind that if the answer doesn't satisfy you, then you're within your rights to protect your team and take whatever steps you feel you need to.

share|improve this answer

I think that you are in an impossible situation:

When something bad happens, it's going to be tough to find out what happened if people are afraid to speak freely because they know that they will be blamed, or that their peers and junior colleagues are going to be blamed. I personally would be very uncomfortable about telling you anything, if the consequence is that I am telling on a colleague or a subordinate who has made a good faith error, knowing what's in store for them. In summary, searching for someone to blame can really get in the way of searching for what happened. Sooner or later - probably sooner than later, your search for the truth every time something happens is going to be hampered and your effectiveness in ferreting out what happened will go South. Searching for someone to blame is exactly the wrong approach, if the goal is searching for what happened.

I deduce from Your management's habit of searching for someone to blame that they are entrenched followers of the Theory X of Management, which holds that employees cannot be trusted and won't do the right thing on their own. Needless to say, the implication of Theory X is controls and punishment. And whether intended or not, suppression of individual initiative.

In terms of actions you could take that I can think of, these actions have limited effectiveness and each action has its downside:

  1. You could tell your management that searching for someone to blame is counterproductive for the reason I laid out above in the first paragraph. However, I am not holding my breath that as followers of Theory X, they are going to pay attention and listen to what you say because you are telling them what they don't want to hear: that their approach is counterproductive..

  2. Beyond telling them that, I would engage in passive resistance and play deaf, dumb and blind when it comes to laying down the blame: "I don't have a clue". Or if it comes to my own team, "if you are looking for someone to blame, blame me" - The downside of this approach is that it comes with an obvious potential cost to me. In terms of effectiveness, this approach is a delaying action: I get in their way until they lose their patience and they shove me out of the door. That's why I keep a cash reserve and why my resume is always up to date :)

I'll end my answer by stating I wouldn't work for an outfit such as yours. It operates contrary to the way I believe employees should be managed. And the wear and tear of having to deal with this management would stress the hell out of me :)

share|improve this answer
1  
Vietnhi, this sounds a lot like a Just Quit answer, which are held to much higher standards here. While it's great that this isn't a company you want to work for, the asker is telling us that they want to find a way to focus on solving problems. If that is impossible, please explain why it is impossible, and edit your answer to explain that there is no alternative a bit better. Thanks in advance! –  jmac Jul 4 at 2:42

My usual response to a question like that is: It's my fault. At least when there's some vague way how I could have acted differently that might have changed the outcome (e.g. I didn't shout "no" when Bill proposed the change or I didn't look at the log file the week before so the failure took everyone by surprise).

I've found this often works surprisingly well. Usually, the manager will want to know what I did wrong, so I can say "I didn't look at the log file the week before so the failure took me by surprise". If the manager isn't a complete idiot, he'll know that no one in the company ever looks at logfiles just for the fun of it, and he'll say so. To which I respond "well, maybe we should do that - how much time would you allocate to that?" - the point is, now we're discussing solutions, not blame.

Obviously, whether this works depends a lot on the relationship between you and the manager in question, on your reputation in the company and on the work environment as a whole. If the environment is as bad as you describe it, this might turn out to be a career-limiting move. But it might also be that the managers (mis-)interpret your "it's nobody's fault"-explanations as "weaseling out of responsibility", so their natural response is to try and pin you down.

Cutting the blame-discussion short by simply accepting the blame is my way of making clear that I'm taking responsibility for my work and I'm happy to talk about solutions any time, but I won't point fingers. If that's not appreciated, then maybe I'm better of elsewhere anyway.

share|improve this answer

If you do not know who is to blame, I suggest that you say so and tell management the cost of determining this information:

I don't know whose fault it is. However, we do know which part of the code was responsible. So, if you need this information, I could find out who specified it, who wrote it, who reviewed it and who tested it. I'd need to go through the version control logs and a lot of old e-mails, but it should be doable in a few hours of work. (Of course, this would delay $importantProject by those hours...)

It's up to them to decide whether it's more important for them to (a) get this information or (b) have you continue to work on $importantProject instead. Chances are good that they will choose option (b), but they will have the feeling that

  • you did not try to hide someone's mistakes, and
  • that it was their choice to make.
share|improve this answer

To some extent, you need to have tunnel vision, stand by your convictions, and do what you think is right.

Consider this story about Apple SVP Eddy Cue:

In one version of a story that he told everyone, [Eddy Cue] was plucked out of the IT department by Jobs during a meeting in which he had dared to voice an opinion about the topic at hand. When Jobs looked at him and told him to shut up, an undeterred Cue spoke up again, causing Jobs to throw a pen at his forehead. Cue, who by then figured he had nothing to lose, braced himself and offered up his opinion for a third time. This time, he won Jobs's approval.

From that moment on, Cue became Jobs's guy...

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.