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Stop playing the blame game in the workplace, says UBC study

As the modern workplace continues to evolve, so should managers, particularly when it comes to how they deal with mistakes in the workplace, says a new study from UBC’s Sauder School of Business.

And while the current business climate seems to call for expediency in handling snafus —which often means quickly finding someone to hold responsible for the screw-up and then getting on with your day— the trend towards the “quick blame” game should be resisted, says UBC professor Daniel Skarlicki.

“Today’s organizations typically move at a fast pace and face a lot of uncertainty, so value is placed on doing something about problems when they arise and on resolving them quickly,” says Skarlicki, in a press release. “The result is a pressure on managers to locate blame, assign sanctions and then assume that the problem has been resolved.”

But there are plenty of negatives that can follow from swift blame, say the researchers, whose study, “Must Heads Roll? A Critique of and Alternative Approaches to Swift Blame,” appears in the journal Academy of Management Perspectives. Stigmatizing workers and generating resentment within the organization are never a good thing, the authors state, as a bad work environment inevitably leads to losses in productivity.

“We argue that swift blame can involve distorted perceptions and judgment, exacerbate conflict, erode employee engagement, and stifle organizational learning,” say the authors. “Managers have a special responsibility to thoughtfully and carefully consider how they react to perceived wrongdoings.”

Instead, the study’s authors offer three alternative approaches for managers: (a) the no-blame approach, which does away with the disciplinary tactics in favour of viewing company errors as opportunities for learning and growth, (b) the procedural approach, involving an appeal to institutional rules and principles and deciding how they might apply to the case in question, or (c) the “mindfulness” approach, which encourages toning down the emotions and taking time to make a careful, considered judgment.

Yet putting these strategies in place is no walk in the park, says Skarlicki, and they may require a major shift in organizational culture to get entrenched. “These solutions are not easily implemented, since they require the parties involved to take risks and invest time and effort,” says Skarlicki. “It’s easier to find someone to blame, assume the problem has gone away and move on.”

Want to revamp your managerial style to fit the modern age? There are plenty of options, starting with Charles Handy’s “break the rules” philosophy as detailed in the Age of Unreason. This pioneering view of the modern workplace argues that old rules of management don’t apply in the more fast-moving digital age. The take-away: think bold and do the unreasonable.

At the other end of the spectrum, we find approaches like Peter Drucker’s, whose “The Effective Executive” criticizes the grandstanding approach to leadership seen, for example, in a number of today’s tech company gurus. Drucker says to do away with the ego and get down to the business of finding out how to get the most out of your organization.

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About The Author /

Nick Waddell
Cantech Letter founder and editor Nick Waddell has lived in five Canadian provinces and is proud of his country's often overlooked contributions to the world of science and technology. Waddell takes a regular shift on the Canadian media circuit, making appearances on CTV, CBC and BNN, and contributing to publications such as Canadian Business and Business Insider.

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