Tuesday, 24 November 2009

When things go wrong: No blame

Errors arise when individuals make decisions, but their root causes are deeper than how 'competent' we are at the point when we make decisions.  Their sources include :

  • the tools available to help us make decisions (such as the decision tree)
  • the information we have at our disposal
  • our psychological make-up; our values; the way we use information; the frames we deploy; our memories and how we regard past events
  • the organisational contex:  corporate values; support systems; the way decisions and their results are analysed and rewarded.
When things go wrong attribution makes us simplify all this hugely, by seeking the causes of negative outcomes in other people.  There is always pressure to demonstrate a response to downsides, and people often find it hard not to blame those who took decisions perceived as having led to them.   Our brains like simple causal stories, not ambiguous complexity, and it doesn't get much simpler than attributing downsides to the actions of someone else.  The implication is that error has arisen because an individual is deficient in character or ability ('look what you've done!).

Because  being blamed gives rise to negative emotions, and often leads to some kind of sanction or punishment as well, people who make errors tend to blame them on circumstances or events, rather than themselves ('it's not my fault!').

Neither of these all-too-familiar 'natural' perspectives on error is useful in improving the way we make decisions, or the way we respond when things go wrong.  Refraining from blame is a crucial part of informed decision making and good management. 

No comments: