I discussed in a previous post the law of least effort and its detrimental effect on our decision-making abilities. Our brains tend to take the most undemanding course of action if presented with numerous ways of achieving the same objective. As a result, we are wont to believe that choices come ready-made. This tendency can, of course, compound a blame culture in any organisation.
This innate unwillingness to consider a comprehensive array of would-be solutions inevitably leads to a rush to judgment. We act in haste and repent at leisure. All of the “what ifs” that we might usefully have contemplated before surrendering to our knee-jerk inclinations duly return to haunt us when our imprudence eventually becomes clear.
Resistance to change
Such a bent for quick-fix answers so often proves damaging. This is because initial shortsightedness is frequently accompanied by a subsequent reluctance to admit a change is urgently required. Some of the most celebrated leaders in history have succumbed to this double whammy. Witness, for instance, Napoleon’s disastrous determination to persist with his invasion of Russia in the face of repeated and ultimately decisive setbacks.
Napoleon very probably regarded himself as answerable to no one. However, most of us accept we are in some way accountable for our less successful choices. It is true, too, that accountability is crucial. Yet there is a marked difference between accountability and blame culture. It is the latter that defines many modern-day organisations. Blame culture routinely plays a pivotal role in ensuring that mistakes are ignored or even perpetuated rather than being lessons to be learned.
By illustration, let us briefly examine two institutional responses to error. Both are from the same sphere, which makes for a direct comparison. Each revolves around a tragedy in which more than a hundred people died. Together they underscore the vast chasm between an open-minded philosophy that addresses poor decisions and a corrosive blame culture that in many ways merely encourages even more of them.
A culture of fear
On April 25 2005, a commuter train left the track and ploughed into a block of flats in the industrial city of Amagasaki, Japan. An official inquiry concluded that the driver had been trying to make up time when he lost control.
“Lost time” is a painfully relative term here. The reality is that the train was just 80 seconds behind schedule. What manner of prospect was sufficiently daunting for the driver to infer that endangering his own life and the lives of his passengers would be preferable to arriving little more than a minute late?
The answer indeed lies in the severity of the penalties he faced for failing to keep to the timetable. He would have been not just heavily fined but sent on an “education” course. This course reportedly prized humiliation over training. Small wonder that even in the seconds immediately before impact, he applied only the service brake. He knew the use of its emergency counterpart would invite additional punishment.
A culture of improvement
On December 29 1972, Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 plunged into the Florida Everglades en route from New York to Miami. The crash happened after every flight crew member became preoccupied with an unlit landing gear indicator.
Their unswerving focus on this issue blinded them to another that merited much greater attention. The crew had inadvertently turned off the autopilot facility. As a consequence of which, the plane was gradually descending to its doom. Crash investigators discovered there had been nothing wrong with the landing gear. The indicator’s light had burnt out.
Motivated by this incident and others caused principally by human flaws rather than technical faults, the aviation industry introduced crew resource management. An all-encompassing set of new principles and procedures were introduced. CRM quickly helped cement air travel’s standing as the safest form of mass transportation.
Accountability as a force for good
These examples highlight the perils of an organisational mindset that refuses to acknowledge that to err is human. With this prevailing attitude, there is an assumption that someone must carry the can. The buck must stop somewhere. There almost invariably exists an unnecessary pressure that, in the end, serves only to contribute to the wrong decisions for which individuals are later condemned.
By contrast, the second example emphasises the value of an organisational mindset that is prepared to accept that errors, whether minor or catastrophic, are essential to progress. These organisations benefit staff and stakeholders alike by avoiding a debilitating cycle of unfortunate choices, unhappy outcomes, and unthinking censure.
Yes, accountability has its place. There is no doubt about that. But we would do well to recognise that it means precious little if we decline to use it as a tool for improvement. If we only employ it as a weapon for heaping fresh misery by operating a blame culture on those who “called it wrong”, then we are courting more significant risks.
Martin Binks was the former dean of Nottingham University Business School. He was a Professor of Entrepreneurial Development. He was based at its Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. This article was repurposed and was originally published in 2016.
Image courtesy of Depositphotos
Nottingham University Business School specialises in developing leadership potential, encouraging innovation and enterprise, and developing a global outlook in its students, partners, and faculty. It is recognised as one of the world’s top business schools for integrating responsible and sustainable business issues into its undergraduate, MBA, MSc, PhD, and executive programmes and has unrivalled global reach through Nottingham’s campuses in the UK, China, and Malaysia. The School holds a Small Business Charter Award in recognition of its important role in supporting small and medium enterprises. It is accredited by both the Association of MBAs (AMBA) and the European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) and ranks among the UK’s top ten for research power.