Blame and fault-finding is as old as humanity. We learn this early in life: "It wasn't my fault. They did it!" For mistakes in the workplace, the context of the situation matters a great deal when deciding whether an unexpected result is, in Amy Edmondson's words, "praiseworthy" or "blameworthy." She describes a spectrum of situations that explain failures, spanning from ... to ... Here's the list of reasons for failure, from most blameworthy to highly praiseworthy. Items in quotes are taken from Edmondson's description.
Deviance - failure due to not following prescribed procedures is a cause for reprimand, discipline, or firing.
Inattention - "inadvertent deviation" from specifications. This sometimes happens to me when I forget to attend a conference call I'd committed to. Blameworthy!
Lack of Ability - failure due to lack of skills, training, etc. Blame here rests partially on the worker, and partially on management, who need to assess and verify ability on an ongoing basis.
Task Challenge - failure due to the inherent difficulty of a task. Failing to get a hit in baseball seven out of ten times is simply a facet of the game.
Process Complexity - a breakdown in a system due to "novel interactions." Not blameworthy, in fact workers need to be encouraged to report these types of failures, so the novel interactions can be diagnosed and training developed to overcome the new obstacle.
Uncertainty - failure due to circumstances unforeseen at the time an action was taken. This type of failure happens often when there is a long lag between action and outcome. For example, locking in the price of next year's natural gas supply, and then seeing prices fall dramatically. Failures due to uncertainty are reason to evaluate how decisions are made and whether steps can be taken to manage uncertainty or its consequences. (People who succeed in an uncertain environment get undue credit. This discussion by Daniel Kahneman on stock-pickers addresses this point.)
Hypothesis Testing - "an experiment conducted to prove that an idea or a design will succeed or fail." Whether the hypothesis is proven or disproven, you've gained valuable information as a basis for higher-stakes decisions.
Exploratory Testing - an attempt to probe and understand a novel area. Many of these attempts will fail, but even a small percentage of successes will yield large rewards. Praiseworthy!
This quote was cited in an earlier post, but it's worth repeating when talking about how to assess whether someone should be blamed or praised for a failure:
When I ask executives to...estimate what percentage of failures in their organizations are caused by blameworthy events, the answers usually come back between 2 and 5 percent. But when I then ask what percentage of failures are treated as if caused by blameworthy events, after a pause or laugh, their responses often yield a much higher number in the 70-90 percent range.
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