Repairing a Culture of Blame
Maybe we can all agree on a basic starting point: no one is perfect, and every individual and organization should strive for growth and improvement.
To go a step further, perhaps we can all agree that it is our shared responsibility to monitor public institutions – including schools, school districts, state and federal governments – and hold them to high standards.
What happens when we fall short? Or when “they” fall short? How do we respond? What do we want to see happen? Too often in this culture, I think we assign blame. Someone must be held accountable – and if it wasn’t my job, then I certainly can’t be blamed for the results. By shaming or punishing those responsible, we feel like we’ve done our job as monitors or guardians of whatever values we uphold and whatever institutions have let us down. It feels good, doesn’t it – seeing the scandal hit home, the lies revealed, the hypocrites exposed, the inept upbraided and the corrupt brought low?
But I think we’re conditioned to look for someone to blame. For some, casting blame is an addiction, and the most addicted individuals can’t even be bothered to find new targets for their blame.
What happens, then, if there is no one to blame? Can there be a failure without someone to blame? Of course, hindsight being as keen as it is, we can often figure out how a mistake might have been avoided. But does that mean someone has to take the blame because foresight didn’t match hindsight?
I ask these questions not purely out of intellectual curiosity, but because I think the problem of blaming is insidious and has practical consequences. We make faulty assumptions about how people operate within a system or organization, falling for fundamental attribution error: we attribute success and failure too much to people’s individual traits and not enough to the context in which those people operate. We carry misguided ideas about motivation, and try to compel high performance through potential punishment, while neglecting people’s natural drives, to seek challenges and improvement.
So if a school seems to be “failing” – an increasingly useless word in the twilight of NCLB – we need someone to blame. Incompetent teachers. Apathetic parents. Intransigent unions. Politicized school boards. Spineless legislatures. We must hold someone accountable, and it definitely won’t be ourselves.
What if we try a different frame? Could we move, as a society, away from the individualistic and towards the systemic view when diagnosing a problem? Can we break our behaviorist habits and binary mindset, stop thinking of threats and rewards and instead focus on a more organic view how people and organizations operate? I think we have to.
In school reform efforts in Los Angeles Unified School District, Superintendent John Deasy and union president Warren Fletcher have announced a tentative agreement on a new approach to governance and accountability in the state’s largest district. Most notably, schools will have new flexibility and more local control, and less threat of consequences imposed by the district. Scanning Twitter for some reactions, I found skepticism from at least one veteran of the L.A. education reform scene, Mike McGalliard. In a matter of minutes, our exchange of comments could have been construed as one or the other of us potentially blaming the school board, district administrators, the superintendent, or the teachers for whatever has gone wrong in the past or will go wrong in the future. For that, I blame Mike. (/sarcasm).
But seriously, what it brought home for me is that we can all easily get caught up in figuring out who makes the mistakes and who takes the blame. Instead, we need to keep asking non-blaming questions, more analytical, more systemic and solution-oriented. It’s not that I just want everyone to join hands and think happy thoughts, (though I do think managing “the people part” is an underrated skill). But we need more trust and more problem-solving. Instead of asking who’s responsible, who’s to blame, who will be accountable for failure, we should be asking smarter questions about schools and school systems.
What outcomes matter most to us right now, and how can we improve?
What do we need in order to be effective, and how will we determine our effectiveness?
How can we support other people involved in carrying out this work, and ensure their success?
How can we change current practices and conditions that prevent schools, teachers, or students from reaching their potential?
Assume good intentions. Avoid fundamental attribution error. Understand what motivates people. Work like crazy to create the conditions in which people have a sense of shared purpose, can develop autonomy, and are given the time to learn and improve, without threat or fear, to reach increasing levels of mastery.
The culture of blame is holding us back, and must be repaired.