Unfair blame is something we all experience from time to time. For all the talk of 'zero blame' or 'fair blame' cultures, there are many occasions when even the best-intentioned will slip from these ideals and become judgmental and harshly critical.
Unfair blame can happen for a variety of reasons which I examine in this post.
Unfair Blame And Human Error
Two workmen move cautiously into a nuclear silo. It is 1980, and the men are engaged in a routine maintenance exercise.
One of them has forgotten to take a particular specialised tool, so they go off script, as they and other workmates had done many times before and improvise. They use a large and unwieldy socket wrench instead of the correct tool.
The socket wrench has a loose head which weighs eight pounds. During the inspection, the head falls off, and arrows down 80 feet, where it crashes into a rubber seal surrounding the missile, laden with tons of volatile liquid fuel.
The terrified men watch as the tool bounces off the seal, angling round in the air and then see it descend in the one and only position which could allow it to fall through a small gap between the seal and the side of the missile.
It crashes into the fuel tanks below, piercing them and releasing the highly reactive fuel in a pressurised stream.
This sets off a chain reaction which leads to an explosion blowing the 750-ton doors off the silo chamber and hurling the thermo-nuclear warhead 100 feet through the air where it lands in a nearby ditch, without exploding. One man is killed and a further 21 are seriously injured.
The warhead in question contained more explosive power than all of the bombs dropped (including the nuclear ones) during the second world war. You can read more about the story here or listen to the This American Life episode about it here.
In this example of human error, the workmen responsible for the error were working in the most dangerous environment it is possible to imagine. The explosive potential of the warhead was so huge that it would have sent up a radioactive cloud that would have impacted 400 square miles of surrounding countryside.
One of the lessons from this explosion is that it is the unthinkable or unimaginable event that we should worry most about.
Perception And Unfair Blame
I’m sure you’ve heard of the book Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff’ by Richard Carlson.
The message it contains is an important one, which is that you shouldn’t allow the small things in life to become so distracting that you fail to focus your time and energy on the things that really matter.
While I agree with this proposition, I do find there are times when apparently small stuff does become more impactful than it should.
Recently, I’ve had a couple of experiences which have gone wrong in ways that I wouldn’t have thought possible. This is what I learnt as a result.
Is Your Small Stuff Someone Else’s Big Stuff?
Just because you think something isn’t particularly important doesn’t mean that everyone will share your perspective. I’ve had my fingers burned on more than one occasion by failing to recognise this. Each time this has happened, managing the consequences has taken a tremendous amount of time which I would instead have spent more productively.
To avoid this from happening to you, there are some steps you can take. Here are my three top recommendations.
- Engage Your Team in the Decision. You may have a blind spot when it comes to an issue, but the rest of your team might be able to spot trouble ahead. Listen to what they say, and you could save yourself a lot of wasted time later on.
- Don’t Ignore Your Gut. In most instances where this has happened, I ended up kicking myself for not paying more attention to my instinct. If you are poised to make a decision about something, just hesitate for a moment and check in with yourself. I find that if you build this into your decision-making process, you can often allow the faint internal warning to be heard.
- Work Back From Tomorrow. Play out the natural consequences of your proposed decision and consider who might be affected. If you can visualise how your choice will look in a week, or a month as seen from the harshest possible standpoint, you might spot a wrinkle which you can smooth out before you finally decide.
Unfair Blame: When It's Your Fault That Something's Gone Wrong
Even with these precautions in place, you might still find yourself in a situation where things are getting a lot messier than you want.
Now you’re under scrutiny, and your judgment is being questioned. I’m assuming for the purposes of this post that you’ve not done something negligent or criminal — you just called a situation incorrectly and now you're getting some unfair blame coming your way.
If you’re a leader, it’s very likely that sooner or later you’re on the wrong end of a decision you’ve made. The messiest of these situations usually arise when you’re under a lot of time pressure, and you have to hurry your decision-making.
You might also just be unlucky. I find it interesting how unwilling some people are to acknowledge that a lot of success (or failure) comes down to chance. People argue all the time that you make your own luck.
I agree that by putting in the right level of effort, by being diligent and consistently trying to do the right things, you will undoubtedly increase your chances of success.
However, I’ve also been in many situations where a political preference or commercial decision have led to some dire consequences that have no bearing on how well or poorly people have been performing. Circumstances do matter.
If your best-laid plans go wrong, I find the following approach helps.
- Check That Everyone Else Thinks It’s Broken. It might sound strange, but not everyone might think something has gone wrong. Your boss might have been looking for an excuse to do something which this situation now makes possible, for example. It is worth checking to make sure that your interpretation matches how other people are responding.
- Make Sure You Get The Facts. There can be a temptation to move on to the next thing. Before you do so, take the trouble to look at what happened and why. Ask yourself what you’ve learnt and what you would do differently the next time. Try not to make any assumptions about what happened. You might think you know, but I have found that your initial assumptions about the cause are not always right.
- Get In Front Of It. If things have gone wrong, acknowledge it has happened and start to deal with the consequences. This is usually better than reacting defensively and trying to explain things away.
When The Retroscope Gets Switched On — Coping With Unfair Blame
Organisations are usually extremely wise after the event. Everyone can see a problem for what it is, once it has entirely played out. If you find yourself at the centre of a decision which has got derailed, you might need to prepare for the retroscope to be switched on.
Looking back at what has happened on the basis that the organisation (and you) can learn from what has happened is a healthy process which should be encouraged.
However, the harsh light cast by the retroscope, every judgment you have made will be evaluated in the knowledge of what has happened, sometimes by people who are looking to find fault. Now you're very likely to be the victim of unfair blame.
It is amazing how when looking back, it is apparent what should or should not have happened. The men working in the missile silo should not have improvised. The fact that they had done so many times before without incident led them to believe that this was OK.
Even when things did go wrong, and the tool fell, it still required a fantastic piece of bad luck for the tool to land in such a specific way to slip through the small gap in the seal.
- Make a Written Note of What Happened as Soon as Possible. Record what has happened and your reasoning behind any of the decisions you made. It is easy to get blown around if accusations come your way. Having a written account will help you stay true to your version of events.
- Talk to Your Boss. as soon as you are aware that something has gone wrong, inform your boss. Delaying the inevitable will not help and if you are honest and straightforward from the outset, any downstream consequences that your error creates can be contained, limiting the damage and potential consequences.
- Get Some Advice. If you are worried, then get some advice. This is best sought from someone acting in a professional capacity — your colleagues might think they know all the angles, but they might be wrong. Talk to someone whose advice you are paying for.
- Don’t Try To Hide Your Mistake. While it might be tempting to paper over your error, this is not a recommended strategy. More often than not, the error will come to light. When it does, your decision to try to hide it will make things worse for you.
- This Thing Will Pass. It can be stressful when you're under examination. In the end, just like every other moment, this one too will pass. Everyone who survives making an error gets the opportunity to continue with their lives. It may be under a new set of circumstances, but ultimately a new day will dawn. This is when family and close friends will come into their own. Your mindset when facing such circumstances will play a big part in your eventual recovery. You can read some more advice about recovering from a setback here.
Something went wrong and the victim of unfair blame? What’s your advice?