Do leaders who blame - Leave the Cow in the Ditch?

Nov 3 2020

The Leader Mind Equation

A reflection from 'The Leader-Mind Equation' (p 255-256)

As the countries of the world lurch through the challenges of dealing with Covid-19, it is inevitable that mistakes will have been made. As time passes, and with the benefit of hindsight, we will eventually be able to see with more clarity which of the actions taken were strategically sound and which ones were indeed mistakes/bad choices. As I write this in October 2020, the Covid experience is far too current for us to make that call with any degree of confidence.

What the experience has illustrated for me immediately is the sad human habit of asking the wrong question when something is awry. The right questions would be: "How can wefix this?", "What went wrong?" and "How can we learn from this?". These questions generate the kind of learning that deals with the immediate issue, arms us for the future and helps us to deal with analogous situations when they occur. In contrast, the wrong questions block learning and lead us down false trails that lead to pain but not productivity.

The wrong question is of course: "Who is to blame?"

Pages of every newspaper - spawning hours of conversation, inquiry and speculation - are wasted each day on the wrong question; on blaming some person or organisation for what has transpired. Excuses proliferate as individuals and groups try to shift blame or avoid the accusations and censure of others.

"Whose fault is it?" is not just the wrong question at this time - it's always the wrong question! Blaming someone for something (or even for everything) is a temptation we often choose, as if finding out who is responsible somehow settles the matter. Relieved that we have found someone to blame (and it's not us!), we become spectators at the ritual of consequences - and the cow stays in the ditch!

If you don't understand the 'Cow in the Ditch' reference, then let me help you. Anne Mulcahy, a former CEO of Xerox, related a piece of advice that she was once given: "When things go wrong, remember three things. First, get the cow out of the ditch. Second, work out how the cow got into the ditch. Third, do whatever is needed to prevent the cow falling in the ditch in future."

It's a piece of advice that is relevant to anyone who finds themselves indulging in the wasteful habit of blaming. As leaders and managers, when we blame someone for something that went wrong then what usually happens is this:

  • The accused person either tries to avoid or shift the responsibility, or they try to justify whatever they did;
  • They make sure that 'next time' they don't step up and make the decision - then they can't be blamed;
  • The culture of your team, business or school becomes focused on avoiding blame rather than on becoming more effective by improving systems or training.

In this kind of culture, problems are deferred or delegated, bosses are rarely told the truth (too dangerous) and enterprise and initiative are regarded as too chancy. It's better to be safe. But paradoxically, it is organisations which are hobbled by this culture that repeatedly make mistakes because they can't learn from them. The cow falls in the ditch repeatedly! There is an alternative formula for dealing with mistakes or things that went wrong, and it's all illustrated in the cow narrative: Solution + Learning + Future Focus.

Solution: whatever went wrong, everyone takes responsibility for finding a fix. No energy is wasted on the problem or finding fault. Get the cow out of the ditch.

Learning: what have we learned that will help us to avoid the problem situation in the future? What has this episode told us about the limitations of our systems and practices? Which were the open gates or drooping fences that let the cow out of the pasture?

Future Focus: what do we do next? What will help us thrive in future whilst also allowing us to avoid or deal effectively with similar challenges when they occur? How can we keep the cow safe and grow the farm? When things go wrong, when mistakes are made, when you and your organisation are challenged by omissions or miscalculations - refuse to spend any time on allocating blame or finding fault. These activities use up a lot of energy for no reward; they accumulate personal distress and diminish mutual trust. Meanwhile, the cow stays in the ditch!

You can purchase 'The Leader-Mind Equation' from