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Co-operation over criticism

Mandy Geal, founder of culture change specialist Learning Partners, calls on the industry to drive out the blame games


Have you ever been blamed for something at work that you felt was not your fault, or something you didn’t do? Maybe you received an email that made your blood boil, or encountered disparaging comments, aggressive questions or finger pointing in a meeting.

What did you feel like doing in response? It’s likely that you did one or more of the following: You blamed someone else. You got angry with the person and had a row. You complained about the unfairness to anyone who would listen. You gathered information to justify your position and defended yourself in long detailed emails. Maybe you looked for opportunities to get back at the person who accused you. You might have emailed lots of people to cover your back just in case. You might have kept information to yourself so that you couldn’t be accused of doing the wrong thing. 

Or maybe you felt powerless to do anything about the injustice of the situation and worried what people would think of you. All these reactions use up time, attention and energy, but for what result?

Cause of blame

The reactions described above are created by the brain’s hard-wired survival mechanisms of fight, flight and freeze in response to perceived threats. They have been natural human reactions for the 3.4 million years that humans and their ancestors have been on the planet. 

Our evolved human brain monitors the environment both for physical dangers and psychological threats, which are experienced through our thoughts and emotions. Being blamed constitutes a number of psychological threats at a fundamental level of personal security, and as a result generates strong emotions. Thoughts such as: What was I supposed to do? Who’s in charge here? Do I have the power to do anything about this? 

Blame generates feelings of injustice, anger, revenge, guilt, and hopelessness. Blame damages trust, which is essential for successful collaboration. Blame is a widespread problem in the rail industry, and affects people at all organisational levels. 

Punitive key performance indicators (KPIs) designed to attribute fault create reporting structures that take up extra time and cause frustration. Blame occurs when people are working under pressure within tight timescales to find out what’s gone wrong, in order to solve problems quickly. The intention is positive but the human response is frequently negative, leading to wasted time, poor information, and delays.

The alternatives

In contrast, there are many instances where people in the rail industry pull together in difficult circumstances to solve challenging problems above and beyond their day-to-day responsibilities. These successes occur when people trust and support their colleagues, work together to solve problems, and deliver the service that passengers and freight users require. 

Neuroscience demonstrates that human beings experience trust and support in the brain’s reward system rather than the threat system. The reward system reduces psychological threats and enables people to think with a broader perspective, complex reasoning and balanced judgment. People feel confident and more open to sharing information and admitting mistakes. They solve problems quickly with better data and achieve wider-reaching solutions.

When organisations share KPIs that are designed to measure success, they promote a positive and collaborative culture of problem solving. When people have sight of what work is like for those in different parts of the rail industry, they tend to show more empathy for them and have realistic expectations of what can be done.

Why is it important to drive out blame?

Passengers see the rail industry as one integrated transport service and have little understanding of all the different organisations involved. They want problems and delays sorted quickly, and to know when this will happen, rather than who is to blame. 

We have seen many examples where people have changed behaviour to focus on collaboration rather than blame and have achieved significant improvements in performance because they work more efficiently. When people change the processes of measuring and reviewing results to include some recognition of people’s contribution and successes, as well as discussing outstanding problems, motivation and levels of engagement increase. In this culture, opportunities for people development arise, and for cross-fertilisation of ideas, benchmarks and best practice. 

As a result of making these changes, organisations have reduced cost, improved revenues, increased quality, and developed better relationships with customers and partners. Collaboration makes good business sense.

So, what can we do? Driving out blame is not the kind of change the rail industry can make in a day, but on an individual level you can make an immediate impact on the people around you. 

Take a breath before blaming others. Find out more information. Try to understand the situation from the other person’s perspective. Think about the outcome, find some common ground, and make a suggestion to move the situation forward. Your differences will be minimised and easier to reconcile.

Leaders in the rail industry could harness the pride that people working in the industry feel and use this as a motivation. First, praise success, acknowledge hard work, recognise the dedication to deliver and then be clear about the challenges of improving, which are significant. Blame wears people out; pride energises them.

The traveling public could recognise that improvements to the network are necessary. They could be more tolerant of delays and closures caused by bad weather. These are outside the control of the people working hard in the industry to keep the railway going. 

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