In many organizations, it is all too common to see coworkers throw one another under the bus. Some of us may have even engaged in some finger-pointing ourselves when a project went south, or when a big pitch landed with a thud. After all, nobody enjoys being perceived as a failure, even to herself.
But what if things were different? What would happen in an organization where employees, rather than racing to absolve themselves, jostled to take the blame?
On a recent trip to the U.S. Army’s National Training Center, Ned Smith, an associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, was surprised to find just such an organization. In after-action reviews and debriefings, soldiers of every stripe, from privates to company commanders, stepped forward.
“It wouldn’t be much of an overstatement to say that they are almost competing to take the blame,” Smith says. “‘No, it was me…,’ ‘It was my guys,’ ‘No it was me,’” Smith says. “That’s not something you readily see in corporate America.”
How does a hierarchically structured organization like the military foster an environment where people are willing to take the fall when things go wrong? Smith and Col. Brian Halloran, recently a U.S. Army Chief of Staff senior fellow at Kellogg, discuss the unique advantages of a culture of responsibility and accountability—and how other hierarchical organizations might benefit.
A Culture of Responsibility
Even stalwart leaders may feel tempted to wash their hands of any mishaps where accolades and rewards are perceived as scarce.
“When people have a sense that it’s a winner-take-all, zero-sum game for promotions,” Smith says, “they are aware of the fact that while they might be collaborating, they are also competing every minute for the next step up.”
The Army, however, has a few quirks that make it simpler to create a culture of responsibility. The first is that most soldiers rotate into new assignments after relatively short stints—two to four years, on average. Even so-called “career” Army officers are encouraged to rotate assignments relatively frequently, in order to gain broader experiences and ensure they will not be passed up for promotion.
“When a leader knows that what matters are the overall performance of the unit and the improvement of the unit as a whole, they are far more likely to openly discuss what didn’t go right.” —Col. Brian Halloran
While these tenure expectations may not be realistic for all organizations, there are plenty situations where a certain degree of turnover may be viewed positively—by both the firm and the employees—as a way to reduce overt competition while promoting collaboration and accountability.
Another tool that the Army employs—one that may be more easily adopted by other organizations—is to have officers compete across the entire army for promotions, not just among their brigade. The evaluators in the promotion review board do not supervise the leaders they are evaluating for promotion, so there is less incentive for officers to save face in situations where they make a bad call.
“When a leader knows that what matters are the overall performance of the unit and the improvement of the unit as a whole, they are far more likely to openly discuss what didn’t go right,” Halloran says.
Decoupling the after-action review and the promotion process also allows for promotion decisions that take into account a much broader set of criteria, rather than simply the latest mission.
Of course, this only works if people trust that they will be evaluated fairly and with transparency.
“Typically you see people competing to avoid blame, or on the flip side, competing to take the credit when there’s a lot of ambiguity in the task at hand,” Smith says. “So when you’re competing to take the blame, you also have to be pretty confident that somebody is going to acknowledge the good stuff you’re doing.”
Beyond “Taking the Blame”
But just throwing up a hand and taking the blame for an operational failure does little good if the admission is not couched in a plan to identify the cause and fix the underlying problem.
“It can’t just be, ‘excuse me’ or ‘I screwed up, I’m clueless,’” Halloran says. “Instead it is, ‘I missed this.’ And it’s usually a fairly specific thing. You take the blame, identify the root cause of what went wrong, and come up with a way to fix it.”
Still, this leaves open the question of who should be tasked with deciding what the fix should be. There is danger in an individual taking responsibility for fixing a problem that is, in fact, systemic, or caused by multiple parties. Similarly, there is danger in small teams trying to fix a problem themselves, without recognizing that it is a “Big Army” problem that requires escalation.
“It requires interdependence to work efficiently and effectively,” Smith says. “If somebody doesn’t recognize where they are in the system, you have a failure in that interdependence of actors, and you might very well miss a piece of the solution.”
With that in mind, the Army has set up a communication network that includes message boards, conference calls, and email blasts—in addition to after-action reviews—to facilitate sharing of information and solutions. “If you have tactics, techniques, procedures, orders, processes—whatever was working in your unit—you can offer that so that anybody in that position across the Army can look at it and use it,” Halloran says.
From Fixes to Opportunities
Another potential limitation of a culture that promotes taking the blame as a starting point to making improvements is that it puts employees in a mindset of finding solutions to problems, rather than making suggestions about things that are not necessarily broken, but could nonetheless be improved.
“Soldiers are usually pretty good about providing context,” Halloran says. “They come up with solutions because something bad happened, but very rarely are they exploiting an opportunity.”
Indeed, Halloran has found that more general requests for advice or suggestions often go unheeded. “My first couple of years in the Pentagon, I would send out these netcalls to other soldiers I knew pretty well,” Halloran says, “asking ‘Hey, I’m questioning why we do this, what do you think?’ It was like crickets: chirp, chirp, chirp.”
But Halloran has found a workaround that hinges on a fundamental truth about human nature—so take note, managers everywhere: nobody likes it when other people make their job harder to do.
Halloran found that if he sent a call laying out his question and accompanied it with a left-field proposal—something utterly outrageous that would be sure to alarm his colleagues—he is far likelier to get a reaction.
“They may think, ‘Oh no! That’s going to make my life miserable.’ Then they’ll get involved to help.”
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