The Management of Blame by Senior Managers

In the natural course of doing business, things go wrong.

For some of the things that go wrong, people assume responsibility; for other things that go wrong, blame is assigned. The management of blame is part and parcel of organizational life. Blame is part of the game at all levels of the organization.

At the very top of every organizational/business pyramid, there are people with huge egos, and the management of blame is a tool that protects the valuation of the ego and the reputation of the very senior players.

As a matter of fact, managing blame is a critical skill often ignored by the starry eyed consultants who tweet and write about leadership. Many claim that blaming is characteristic of poisonous leadership, or a dysfunctional culture. I disagree.

My experience of 35 years in 4 continents suggest to me that almost all senior leaders have (and use) a vast array of political skills, one of which is the allocation of blame to others when things go wrong. Without blaming skills, you do not reach the top. 

Organization development consultants need to pay more attention to the allocation of blame as a generic built in characteristic of leadership at the top, because senior management teams “manage” the allocation of blame all the time, looking for a place to “park the blame”, and have someone else pay the fine.

I want to point out 10 frequent types of blaming used by people in senior positions.

  1. Pushing  unrealistic commitments
  2. Demonizing a certain figure
  3. Blaming one’s predecessor
  4. Picking on one member of the team without dismissing him/her
  5. Blaming the entire senior team
  6. Blaming the regulators (over-under regulation)
  7. Constant shifting of blame, like a swan casting water off it back
  8. Lack of employee “engagement”
  9. Making ambiguous demands and then, ex post facto, expressing dissatisfaction about the results
  10. Maliciously and intentional under-resourcing

I have never encountered any senior manager or senior team where some blaming dynamic is not in place. Furthermore, the blaming dynamic often reflects the pathology of the organization.

The starry eyed idealistic consultant, armed with leadership models fresh from academia, avoids discussing the blame factor, and focuses solely enhancing accountability, ownership and mutual dependencies. By ignoring the realpolitik of senior leadership , the consultant will become irrelevant.

A professional practitioner understands what part of the blaming dynamic is changeable and works to mitigate the dynamic, whilst accepting that the treatment of the blame pathology can only go so far.

One final comment. In Asia, senior management tends to vocally blame subordinates far less than in Europe and North America, due to the obligation of the leader to appear to be compassionate. Blaming does occur, but it is much more subtle.

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An OD consultant should not approach chaos like an Industrial Engineer or Change Manager

When Jean invited me to work with this management team, he had prepared a few slides to brief me on what he sees as the major issues. I have worked with Jean twice in the past, so Jean was fair enough to tell me “this is how I see things, Allon; I am not telling you how to do your work”.

Jean’s slides boiled down to three issues:

  1. Role ambiguity between Engineering and Customer Service results in lack of accountability during customer deployment
  2. Lack of priorities per department and lack of shared priorities result in constant chaos
  3. Planning not accurate results in “resource allocation as a constant ongoing negotiation” between line and staff

Jean had tried to solve these issues with his (cost effective) internal change management team, consisting of industrial managers and change managers. “Every time I think of you Allon, I think of my root canal surgeon, so you can imagine I have tried everything before having you come all this way to make my life miserable.”

I spoke with Jean’s team members, 8 in number, consisting of 2 Germans, one Israeli, and five North Americans, including one French Canadian besides Jean himself. My view of things was that Jean is running a highly innovative company in a fast moving market, and all of the 3 issues Jean had pointed out are “par for the course.”  To be more specific,

1-The product is so innovative and deployment is so early that it is indeed impossible to define what is owned by Engineering and Customer Service

2-Everything is indeed urgent; there are no firm priorities because the market is moving so quickly

3-No plan, however extensive, can be useful in a market where expected quarterly revenue runs between 4 and 90 million dollars.

The problems that I noticed are:

  1. The two Germans (Finance and Planning) and Israeli (Engineering and Deployment) had totally different coping mechanisms with the chaos, the German preferring drowning in details in attempt to conquer the chaos and the Israeli preferring making an ideology out of chaos.
  2. Each senior manager managed to juggle well within their own group, but as a senior juggling team, they were useless because they were blaming one another instead of assuming joint ownership of the juggling task.
  3. Planning and control, Finance and HR were trying to fit old economy and rigid models/mechanisms onto the organization which did not match reality.

Jean promised to fix the third issue. He also told me to coach the German and Israeli, separately and as a team. I worked with them on global competencies.

Jean asked me, how we fix 2? Joking, I told him that his purchasing department had asked me for a detailed roadmap for fixing 2 as well. And thus the work began. We focused on mutual accommodation, organizational juggling skills, teamwork and delphi prediction techniques.

All in all, I made three trips from Tel Aviv to Geneva and Zurich, and the entire project took ten days. Not one single day was devoted to either role clarity or reaching agreement on one firm list of shared priorities.

In our final meeting, all members of the team said that the learning experience and change had been phenomenal, and they invited me out to my favourite steak house, and we ate and drank, and drank.

The greatest compliment came from the German who told me, “you did not change anything, but every”z”ing changed.

Follow me @AllonShevat and follow Gloria at @GRamsbottom

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Emotional detachment and the calling of OD

One definition of a calling is simply a vocation, trade and or profession. Another dimension of a calling is a strong impulse, inner yearning and/or beckoning to practise a certain profession.

Certainly there is a lot to be said for viewing ones’ profession as a calling: enjoyment, fulfillment and self-expression, and not simply a “bag”. (old slang for a way to earn a few bucks).

Organization Development is a compatible calling for many sorts of people driven by values and the desire to make a difference: practised well, OD is meaningful, powerful, interdisciplinary and very hard to get right. Although it is sisyphic, it has a huge impact on the quality of relationships and outputs in the workplace.

Beyond the positives that can attract folks to practice OD as a calling, I want to point out one of the less discussed, obscure and counter-intuitive motivations to the OD trade: it is a profession which can provide a people-interaction platform for those of us with emotional detachment.

  • It is the very “numbing” so characteristic of emotional detachment that allows the practitioner to distance himself/herself from a situation and thus provide value-added meaning and perspective. This numbing provides value in diagnosis, intervention and monitors energy levels. 
  • The emotional detachment allows the practioner to develop a practice with a wide range of clients, all of which are contract-based and limited in time. The contract and the time limitation allow the emotionally detached consultant to give more, with less personal anxiety.

There are many reasons that I love doing OD work. First and foremost, it is because it is interdisciplinary and very hard work to do well. However, I easily admit that OD has provided a loner with a playing field to interact with people. Had I not chosen OD as a calling, I may well have had gone into a field more akin to the nerds of today. In many ways, I have made my handicap into an advantage.

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OD needs to stop cross-dressing as Change Management in order to support the chaos of organizational life

Organizational life is characterized by a high degree of chaos, a chaos which creates a complex painful reality at the system, personal and interpersonal level.

Organizations pretend to deny/avoid the chaos via ERPs, structural changes and well defined processes, but the chaos bites them in the ass all the more, manifesting itself in a plethora of post-modern pathologies, such as collapse of trust, massive disengagement, toxic leadership and subjugation of common sense to grotesque IT dictated business processes.

Despite the need that exists to better cope with the brutality inflicted by chaos, OD is no longer a major player in this domain. OD sold its soul as it went through a vast array of changes and  these changes have negatively impacted  OD’s ability to survive. A few of the changes-

  • Commercialization
  • Productization
  • Dumbing
  • Crawling into bed with change management

OD rendered itself irrelevant in the very area in which it has most value. OD became a side show.

Why did these changes not position OD to move into the chaos pain mitigation domain more effectively?  Well, chaos is chaos. Coping with the complexities of chaos cannot be done by dumbed practitioners, using scalable models which promise the predefined deliverables a la change management.

The alternative to the commercialized OD product crap is not easy. Selling and practising the less structured, semi chaotic art of OD is real tough. OD that deals with coping with chaos is hard to define to the client. There is lots of artistic and eclectic improvisation on the way, and the output of such an OD effort is unmeasurable; the changes OD makes eventually creep into the system and people, alleviating a lot of the side effects of excess chaos. However, there is no “deliverable” as an output, enter-able into an ERP purchase request.

By conforming to the clients’ pathology instead of confronting it, we sold our soul.OD knows how to deliver a change in the critical underlying dynamics which sabotage flexibility. There is no need to pretend to be something else.

So where do we go from here? I believe that before OD supports clients’ chaos, we need to loosen up and deal with our own anxiety driven over-structuring. 

In the meantime, OD practitioners who want to help their clients cope with chaos would be wise to avoid all OD models, avoid the flight to spiritualism and desist from cross dressing as change managers.

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From contact to contract-that’s a key time to diagnose

All of us who have studied and taught organizational diagnosis know a plethora of diagnostic models. But diagnosis should begin before the work itself actually starts and this post is geared to pointing out what we should be looking at in the very initial stage between contact and contract.

Paying close attention to what we learn about the client in this period of time often provides the context and direction for the diagnosis and intervention.

Here are five things worth noting.

1-Misplaced/wrong expectations about the nature of OD

  • Clients may overly define the scope of work and expected measurable “deliverables”, forcing you commit to something you know nothing about.

2-The ideological/religious nature of the corporate creed

  • Clients who lecture you about the corporate culture and ask you ensure that your work will reinforce the Holy Grail.

3-Lack of respect

  • Clients who cancel initial meetings again and again, often at the last minute, yet demand total flexibility on your part.

4-Do they want to change, or do they want to “use and throw away”

  • Clients who milk you for long and detailed proposals, again and again , with a very aggressive time schedule and then make you hurry up and wait for an answer.

5-Accessibility to key information; stakeholder analysis

  • Clients who block access to senior management before HR puts a stamp of approval on your forehead.

I do a lot of supervision with consultants who seek guidance when projects go astray. One of my first areas of inquires is “tell me about the very beginning”. Alas, often it’s all there from day one. And acting right from day one saves a lot of heartache.

Recently, I was asked to do merger and integration work. In our initial meeting, the CEO asked me what “model” I use, and if I could finish it all “in 6 weeks”. That was all I needed to start work.

So remember, work starts with the first call, and if you act appropriately at this stage, the chance of success increases.

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