Why leaders must steer clear of blame culture when plans don’t work out

As she publishes her side of her 2016 election defeat, Hillary Clinton stands accused of deflecting blame elsewhere. Here’s why leaders can’t afford to operate a blame culture

It probably wouldn’t have escaped your notice that Hillary Clinton has just published a book. Indeed, over the past week, coverage of the publication has flowed at a seemingly uncontrollable rate, with the former US Secretary of State decisively breaking her silence over a host of deeply uncomfortable matters. Titled What Happened, the book recounts the tumultuous course of last year’s US General Election campaign, which propelled Hillary’s opponent – Twitter-twitching tycoon Donald Trump – into the White House. (Incredibly, that jaw-dropping result is now almost a year old.)

While Hillary herself has taken pole position in the news agenda, much of the surrounding coverage has followed a distinct theme. As many articles about her book have noted (see these pieces at the Guardian and the BBC, for example) Hillary may have admitted to making a few mistakes of her own during the campaign but, at the same time, casts blame far and wide – using her pages to deflect flak from herself on to a series of external factors, forces… and people. Former US President Barack Obama, Green Party candidate Dr Jill Stein, Democratic-nomination rival Bernie Sanders and former FBI director James Comey (himself no stooge of the Trump camp) have all come in for a passive-aggressive slating.

Of all the press verdicts on Hillary’s resumption of public life, few could have been more scathing than this take from the Washington Examiner, which asserts that she “is now the Captain Ahab of politics: a burned candidate who will spend the rest of her life on a vendetta against those who stole her destiny … But unlike Captain Ahab, who only hated Moby Dick, Clinton’s vendetta is against the entire ocean of society, that which stole her birthright.” Ouch.

However painful this backlash is, though, it does convey one very important point: blame culture is never, repeat never, constructive. It’s backward looking. It’s about what happened yesterday – not what’s going to happen tomorrow. It brings out the worst in individuals who may already be experiencing friction, and are looking for reasons to escalate it rather than dispel it through calm and impartial conversation. And it can be used by unscrupulous people to unfairly confer the culpability for their failings upon others. Sadly, those symptoms of blame manifest in a lot of organisations with excruciating frequency.

If organisations create, promote – or simply do nothing about – a blame culture among their people, the impacts will be stifling, or even toxic, leading to a bitter climate in which everyone feels like a suspect. This can worsen stress, diminish mental wellbeing and become a distraction from incorporating the lessons of unsuccessful venture into the firm’s fabric.

So, what can you say to deter CEOs, middle-managers and supervisors from going down this fruitless road? Well, a major reason why leaders must suppress blame culture at all costs is because it stifles creativity and innovation. Given the sheer pace of change in business today, companies need employees who have the imaginative flexibility required to be innovative. Technology is driving a great deal of change, but we must never forget that people lead it, too. Any employee in any organisation can hatch brainwaves capable of either saving or earning their company lots of money. This happens in businesses every day – but not so much in firms with a deep-seated blame culture.

A significant part of innovation is the ability to recover from disappointments and plough the stacks of feedback and reporting that flow from failed ventures into modifications that veer much closer to the bullseye. There is, quite simply, a staggering number of products on the market that have stemmed from post-failure fallback planning, or just plain-old, dogged persistence through the dense undergrowth of trial and error. Take, for example, our much-loved Post-it notes: they came to market as a result of problems that maker 3M ran into while trying to produce a new type of glue. The glue’s light-touch stickiness fell short of the original intention, but worked just fine as a thin strip on the back of small pieces of paper.

Other examples of repurposed and/or persistence-driven innovation include:

    • Betamax Although it lost the 80s ‘format war’ in which VHS captured the home-video market, Betamax was recognised within the media industry as a superior product. As such, it became the go-to choice for TV studios to store shows on behind the scenes.
    • WD-40 This stuff’s name is actually a coded confession on the manufacturer’s part: it took 40 goes to get the product right. Initially restricted to industrial use, it became a garage favourite for homespun mechanics after employees snuck it out of the plant.
    • Bubble Wrap The only packing product that doubles as a comfort aid for the nervous, Bubble Wrap emerged from a failed attempt to create a new type of textured wallpaper, with air bubbles providing the shapes. That original version crashed and burned.

    Even Amazon’s innovation chief Paul Misener said at a recent conference that failure has underpinned some of his firm’s greatest successes.

    Also, remember this: if you operate a blame culture, you will never keep top talent in your organisation. Why? Because those people are being approached by other companies – and why would they choose you as a venue for growing their careers if blame is rampant? Bottom line: you can innovate your way out of an urge to blame – but you can’t blame your way out of your duty to innovate.

    Find out about the workplace areas where Inemmo Leadership Development Solutions can deliver change

    Image of Hillary Clinton courtesy of

    the Wikimedia Commons (public domain)