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InfoQ Homepage News Why Leading without Blame Matters to Leaders and Teams

Why Leading without Blame Matters to Leaders and Teams

According to Diana Larsen, a culture of blame is a waste of human potential. People cannot achieve their best and most creative work in software development when their energy goes into avoiding shame and blame. To lead without blame in IT organizations requires a shift toward learning and curiosity, she argues. It begins by building or restoring a relationship of trust and trustworthiness with the people.

Diana Larsen gave a keynote about leading without blame at ScanAgile 2023.

Organizations put a great deal of time, effort, and expense into hiring the best people they can find, Larsen said. From a practical point of view, bringing those folks into a culture where blame thrives means that investment is wasted:

No one is going to be able to work to their highest standards or best if they are looking over their shoulder wondering if the axe of blame will fall on them next. It’s distracting. It’s hurtful. It’s a waste of human potential.

Larsen mentioned that when people feel blame about to descend on them, they do whatever they can to avoid it. They duck, they deflect, they hide mistakes. When it lands, they feel the shame of being judged inadequate or incompetent, she said. No one can do their best or most creative work when their energy goes to those other responses.

To lead without blame requires a shift in perspective and a deep understanding of the harm that comes to everyone concerned when blaming is endemic. The opposite of blame is learning and curiosity, Larsen said. Rather than seeking to lay blame, look for the systemic roots of whatever happened in an unexpected, disappointing way; whether that’s missed delivery, or a coding error, or absenteeism, she suggested.

Larsen mentioned that leadership through learning can look like the leader who admits when they don’t have all the answers when an employee brings a problem to them. For instance, by saying, "I don’t know what to do about this. Let’s go figure it out together!" The leader who encourages exploration, curiosity, and learning when new, unexpected issues emerge.

A first step to leading without blame is always to begin building, or restoring, a relationship of trust and trustworthiness with the people, as Larsen explained:

I heard a great Norwegian saying from Jorgen Hesseberg about people in a meeting: "They had their shoulders down." I love it. Ask employees and team members what it will take for them to stop tensely hunching their shoulders and focus on work in a smoother, more relaxed, engaged way. Very often the answers are already known.

Larsen suggested asking questions like, "What will it take to spend more time in the flow of work?", "What’s missing in your current work environment?", and "What will help you learn the things you need to learn to do your best work together?" Then follow their advice or explain why you can’t (and it better be good) and ask them to work with you to make things better, for you as a leader, and for them, as a team, she concluded.

InfoQ interviewed Diana Larsen about leading without blame.

InfoQ: How is blaming ingrained in the way that people lead?

Diana Larsen: It’s a habit people and human systems learn early on. Consider the ways that up until a decade or two ago, blaming and spanking children was an accepted practice for schools and parenting. Now most people are horrified at the thought. And people carry over the habits they’ve learned and have seen modelled, at home and school into the workplace.

There are even conventional wisdom sayings about blame as if it’s expected. "Hold their feet to the fire." "Stay in your own swimlane!" "Why can’t you be more like…<coworker name>?" "Who’s responsible for <this mistake>?" And loads of responses such as, "Around here, you have to CYA!" "Keep your head down," and so forth. Employees, managers, and leaders at the top of the organization have come to expect it.

InfoQ: What skills do leaders have to develop to lead through learning?

Larsen: If they work in a software/IT environment, it means developing the skills to see, understand, influence, and work in concert with complex systems, both technical and human. Other new skills may include learning the skills of leading teams rather than individual contributors, how motivation changes, and what factors to look for in the team’s environment. Shifting the leader’s attention to creating the best possible work environment for the nature of the work expected from the team.

Most software teams spend much more time in learning work than in applying past knowledge. They have to focus on new ways of learning relevant skills and information when the work context is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA), and rapidly evolving.

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