No-Blame Leadership

To move to high-level safety it's necessary to perceive and then neutralize ever-smaller risks, like adjusting the fine-tuning controls on a monitor.

I've seen this and perhaps you have, too: Initially promising systems begin to wobble, then spin off the tracks. It could be a winning team whose morale and performance have spiraled down; a once close-knit family where relationships become dangerously strained; or a company with increasing ranks of disgruntled workers faltering toward disintegration.

There are all kinds of reasons that the wheels could fall off. Outside pressures that were once handled begin to pile on, just becoming too much; even strong swimmers who are weighted down can tread water for only so long. Or a range of detractors to performance and morale, disregarded as "insignificant," accumulate into serious obstacles; like bumps of dirt that mounted into an impassable blockage. Hope crumbles that the situation will ever improve; most of us can deal with even highly stressful situations, if we believe these are but temporary.

Direct action is clearly called for when organizational situations deteriorate past the point where problems are no longer under wraps and concerns spill all over.

What can adept leaders do?

  • First, develop the ethic of "being comfortable with discomfort." In fact, it's when all seems poised to hit the fan that true leadership mettle shines. Internally powered leaders are willing and able to face anything. They know that, in Stevie Wonder's words, "Problems have solutions." So rather than bemoaning the situation, they're focused on examining its dynamics to find a way out.
  • Second, look for contributing factors. Assume the current situation didn't spring fully formed from a void. Master leaders assume they or others missed seeing early warning signs, perhaps by ignoring or, worse, actively avoiding mounting problems. Just like soft-tissue injuries, most relationship is cumulative. While it's seductive with back injuries to look at "the one big lift" as the "cause" of a severe back injury, generally there've been numerous unseen/below the radar contributors to this "accident," including small motions (bending empty-handed from the waist, holding breath while exerting force, reaching off-balance, etc.) that were unnoticed straws that piled up to "break the camel's back." Similarly, with communication problems contributing factors may be difficult to identify -- more so when the analyzer's radar is set too high, looking for the "one big trigger." Usually, closer and open-minded inspection reveals buildup of many small slights and tensions that eroded connections between workers and managers, departments, executives, purchasers, and vendors; these can cause significant pullback, resistance, or even explosions. My colleague, Ron Bowles, applies the concept of "Level of Accepted Risk" (LOAR) toward preventing common hand and soft-tissue injuries. He knows many forces that vector towards injuries are unseen or mentally written off because a worker's perception "bar" is set too high, and that these are unconsciously accepted as no-big-deal risks. Further, Ron has found that the mindset of "it won't happen to me" is a major contributing factor in a dangerously elevated LOAR. But to move to high-level safety it’s necessary to lower this bar, to perceive and then neutralize ever-smaller risks, like adjusting the fine-tuning controls on a monitor. Once seen, many of these small risks can then be engineered, procedured, or trained out. The same is true in morale and communication issues.
  • Third, make healing the highest priority. Past a certain point of dysfunction, continuing to ignore problems only allows them to further fester. Be sure to avoid feeding any flames of discontent. Best leaders tap the courage to elicit "on the ground intel" so they can see what's really going on -– actions, trends, and what others really believe -- even when doing this can be uncomfortable.

Most important, it's fruitless, even potentially destructive, to witch-hunt. "Who's at fault?" "Whom do we blame?" Blaming inflames. Rather than burning out discontent or the source of problems, pointing fingers of attribution or embracing retribution only drives problems underground, where they'll further seethe and spread. Some leaders go to the other extreme by only emphasizing what's positive, for even in difficult situations many processes may still work "OK" (product gets out the door, day-to-day operations continue, injuries haven't gone through the roof). This kind of false "positive thinking" denies opportunities to fix obvious-to-all problems, can make troubling situations worse ("The beatings will continue until the morale improves"?), and loses leadership credibility; all can see organizational problems –- why is leadership so blind?

What actually works when emotions run high? Find ways to help discharge as carefully as possible. Start the healing process by piercing and then draining the boil in a controlled environment. Like a skilled physician, alert others to what you're doing (surfacing the problems), that you intend to lance it in order to remove the poison, and that this might be somewhat uncomfortable. Do what you can to minimize pain -– select the right time and place, reduce outside observers who might only distract. But remember that seeking to avoid discomfort only increases the risk that the infection will spread. Sometimes healing necessitates stronger interventions, followed by ongoing check-ins to see whether improvement is actually occurring.

Thus, in critical situations leaders: 1. Acknowledge the issues, at very least to themselves. 2. Communicate support and build hope for real improvement, rather than dwell on how bad situations are and will likely get even worse. 3. Involve employees in developing solutions, where they feel this is a sincere leadership effort toward change. 4. Take small but quick actions that exemplify positive changes are occurring. 5. Check in/monitor the situation. 6. Report back to everyone on progress. 7. Readjust the treatment plan. 8. "Clinic" (review) to determine lessons learned so this disease doesn't reoccur.

There are times where leaders have to address some dysfunctional, uncomfortable issues internally. By making "no-blame, no-fault" their default and, as Gordon Lippitt wrote, "looking at the issues coldly and at the people warmly," leaders can reduce relationship risk and build toward higher-level trust, communications, performance, and culture.

This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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