Thursday, September 29 2022

Except on the tennis court, Novak Djokovic is really doing himself a disservice. On January 12, while still battling his possible expulsion, the player posted a statement on Instagram chronicling his messy odyssey from testing positive for Covid in mid-December to the Australian Open.

Explaining why his travel declaration was disputed by immigration officials, he wrote: ‘This was submitted by my support team on my behalf. . . and my agent sincerely apologizes for the administrative error by checking the wrong box.

Novak, Novak, Novak. I’m afraid your statement puts you at or near the top of the global blame reversal leaderboard. For there are few leadership moves more likely to make someone look like an ‘asshole’, to quote the Australian TV presenters who were caught attacking Djokovic off the air, than publicly blaming your staff.

Other crazy gambits are available, of course, when things go wrong. They include allowing people around you to take the fall, sometimes derided as “the sous chefs will roll.” Or hide behind endless reviews and inquiries in the hope that the critics will get bored. As Boris Johnson’s UK prime ministership slides towards accusation and counter-accusation over lockdown parties, both techniques have been used.

The transfer of responsibility itself can also take many forms, all of which can be observed in the corporate world.

It was graceless and tacky, for example, when a Tesco executive first accused suppliers of allowing horsemeat into the supermarket’s burger supply chain in 2013. It’s a miss tactful and bad business to blame customers, as the founder of Lululemon did the same year, when, in response to complaints about quality, he suggested that women with big thighs really shouldn’t wear the branded yoga pants.

Public staff shaming, however, outranks both of these genres. It is a misuse of power. It also undermines shame, exposing their reluctance to take overall responsibility for the tasks they have delegated to their team. Djokovic is a busy man. Like any leader of an organization, he relies on the staff to help him. But while his agent ticked the wrong box, it was almost certainly the player who ultimately signed the visa papers. The next time the tax authorities question the statement prepared for you by your accountant, try sending them a non-apology on Instagram and see how it goes.

A leader who openly blames staff also destroys trust within the team – and not just with their team members. In fact, blame can be as viral as the Omicron variant.

Nathanael Fast and Larissa Tiedens conducted experiments for a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2009. They found that after participants observed someone blaming others, they were more likely to start trying to reject responsibility for their own mistakes. They called it “blame contagion”.

The main reason for not fostering a culture of blame, however, is that it’s harder for teams to learn from their mistakes. An organization where individuals live in fear of being exposed for their mistakes is bound to repeat its failures, as everyone engages in what research calls “self-image protection” at the expense of open problem solving.

Air accident investigators solved this problem years ago, moving away from a “blame culture”, in which pilots were reluctant to admit even small “honest mistakes”.

A “no blame” culture would have been just as damaging, encouraging complacency and resentment. Instead, aviation has encouraged a “just culture” that facilitates the elimination of the causes of disasters and near-misses, while distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable, or reckless, errors. By a beautiful coincidence, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, captain of the crashed jet that landed successfully in the Hudson River in 2009, was carrying in his luggage that day a copy of Just Culture: Balancing Safety and Responsibility, a book by security expert Sidney Dekker.

Eliminating blame from politics can be a futile quest. As Boris Johnson commented, trying to protect himself from bombardment by MPs last week, the Opposition Leader is ‘paid to try to impeach me’. Even there, however, genuine accountability would be welcome.

In business, however, as in elite sport, the goal is to improve. Fast and Tiedens cite baseball manager Ted Williams, who inoculated his players against the contagion of blame by “doing out praise for a job well done in front of others while offering harsh criticism behind closed doors.” Resist the temptation to publicly blame staff. Instead of asking “who screwed up?” think about what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again.

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Twitter: @andrewtghill


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