My notes and other stuff


Paper: Managing Without Blame?

This week I've read real cool paper from Ben Lupton and Richard Warren titled Managing Without Blame? Insights from the Philosophy of Blame. They take the idea of "no-blame" or "blameless" approaches to organizational learning, note that it's often really challenging to put in practice by various organizations, and decide to go and check out what various philosophers have written about blame to try to suggest possibly better alternatives.

The authors first define no-blame as:

[...] an organizational approach characterized by a constructive attitude towards errors and near misses’. Central to this is the idea that human error is inevitable, but that systems are open to improvement. In a no-blame approach, the focus is moved away from identifying the perpetrator(s) of the error (often with associated shame or punishment) to identifying the lessons that could be learned so that processes can be improved. The focus is on organizational learning.

In short, the idea is that blame discourages the reporting of mistakes and near-misses, and hinders learning. Error-reporting that feels safe, inclusive, looks at broad sets of potential causes, and has a culture of involvement and sharing knowledge, would on the other hand be more conductive to learning. An extra concern around blame is that innovation and risk-taking are often linked together (you must deviate from standard procedures to do something new), and it can therefore create a sense of caution stifles innovation, encourages deflecting blame to others, which in turn causes even more of that same caution.

Most of these ideas come from High Reliability Organizations (HROs), such as airlines and nuclear power plants, which have a need to learn to prevent large-scale disasters. In short, the benefits of the learning are so great they can't afford to be blameful. The authors point out that this trade-off is not necessarily as obvious when there isn't such a risk for catastrophes, citing a study that mentioned train drivers who readily accepted errors being attributed to them in a no-blame system, which made it harder to investigate systemic failures.

What is Blame?

Four visions are explored: blame as sanction, blame as a reaction to relationship impairment, blame as an emotional response, and blame as a power dynamic.

We first start by taking a look at utilitarianism, where blame is seen as a socially useful sanction: there is bad behaviour, and expressing disapproval can be calculated as mitigating or improving that behaviour. It's a light punishment. However, this vision of blame only holds if people are actually able to choose differently next time, and if the target accepts it as justified and want to change their behaviour. If you apply blame when the choice isn't really modifiable, or if it hinges on people's character, then blame isn't as useful under the utilitarian lens.

We then look at Scanlon's contractualism, which frames blame as a way to recognize that a relationship between people has been impaired by someone's acts or attitudes. It's something you do when you feel you have been let down. In this view, blame is a necessary part of human life, because arises from rational obligations of what we owe to each other; not blaming people is treating them as irrational. The authors point out that we don't necessarily attribute blame only in the context of relationships: people we don't know can also be our targets. A variation of the framing offered here is that blame is more of a protest, about how a standard has been transgressed.

These variants seem to ignore the emotional component out of blame, so we turn toward an "affective" account of blame, which is more or less feeling bad because someone acted bad. You stop extending your good will. In this form, blame is a natural response to being wronged or let down, and it's an essential part of how human relations work. There's a stronger suggestion here that blame ought to be more like a "disappointed sadness" than anger, and is more constructive for relationships in that form.

Finally, we look at blame that is seen as a system of power relations. Based on determinists, blame can only be useful if you can change your behaviour in the future. For others, blame relies on the idea that the blamer and blamed share similar values and reasons on how to act (and their actions breaking these standards), and maybe we aren't actually entitled to that assumption—to blame is to impose your own values and frameworks onto other people and judging them by it. Finally, Nietzsche's view is brought up: our feelings of frustration at wrongdoing are due to feelings of powerlessness and envy in relation to others and our systems of morality. Blame is a way for us, as weaker people, to exert power over others.

Reconsidering Blame

The no-blame stance taken by organizations is consequentialist: the future outcomes define whether blame is worthy or not. While this could match with the utilitarian viewpoint and discussing the nature of blame could therefore be irrelevant—just get rid of it—it's not clear whether it is actually justified or possible to ignore blame altogether.

After all, if you believe you can suspend blame, why not also believe you can suspend only the harmful effects of blame and keep the beneficial ones? And if blame is reactive and hard to control, how good of a job are you going to do anyway? Asking people to forego blame can also play against their sense of justice; demands can be ignored or stimulate even more anger.

In some cases too, blame could be constructed as a mechanism by which organizations police, preserve, and sustain sets of values and priorities, which could be useful, were it not from the tendency (within organizational settings) for people with power to shore up their own position and deflect attention or liability away from their own responsibility.

The authors then offer further challenges, asking the question "is philosophy actually relevant to the question of blame in organizations?" In a nutshell, they consider whether the perceived morality of an action is relevant to blame (it is an ethical issue regardless, so philosophy is relevant), and that while it is important to consider whether blame comes with punishment or not, it does not prevent to consider blame through the lens of philosophy for organizations.

In fact, they offer an interesting way to split up responsibility in wondering whether it should also result in different types of blame:

  1. capacity responsibility: whether someone can be regarded as a moral agent (is a child responsible for their actions?)
  2. causal responsibility: can the event be connected to someone's actions (who threw the stone?)
  3. role responsibility: do specific events fall under your responsibility (who was supervising the children throwing stones?)
  4. outcome responsibility: can the consequences of an event be connected to someone's actions (who managed and provided training to the supervisors?)
  5. virtue responsibility: whether someone is considered to be a 'responsible' person in general (we trusted you, buddy)
  6. liability responsibility: who should be held responsible (the authority operating the school where the stones were thrown could be liable)

The authors point out that if you're trying to remove blame, or permit blame, or just discuss blame in general, you should really be explicit about which type of responsibility the blame is associated to.

So while you can do the straightforward thing and protect people from blame in a causal sense, they add that:

In terms of realizing the espoused organizational learning benefits of no-blame, releasing people from the fear of role and outcome blame will be as important as releasing them from the fear of causal blame. After all, in a learning culture managers themselves would need to be ‘freed’ to allow their staff to make mistakes, confident that they will not be blamed when they do.

When you think of error-reporting, role and liability responsibilities also become an issue.

An Alternative to No-Blame

The idea here is that the goals of no-blame might be addressed and attained without giving up blame altogether. There's a mention of seeking 'healthier' blaming practices, which equally rest on the idea that blame can be repressive and inhibiting, except that we are encouraged to accept that blaming is inevitable in human social interactions, and that it can also play a positive role.

The authors repeat that blame can be part of an emotional response of someone falling short of standards, a judgment that someone impaired relations between people, or a firm reminder of certain values, standards, or codes of conducts. Each of these forms of blame can still be damaging, but under many philosophies, they can also play the role of sustaining communities.

What they're getting at here is something we keep seeing in these papers: there are competing objectives, a goal conflict, and negotiating it requires being aware of the trade-offs. The paper does not get into the details of any practical approach, but recommends adopting restraint and tolerance as key mechanisms, in an attempt to avoid "a failure of interpretative generosity".

(note: this seems vague from the authors, so I'm taking the liberty to insert my own example of "interpretative generosity" here. Before incident reviews, I ask that when people see something that appears unreasonable or unacceptable taking place, that they instead question what made it seem reasonable to the people involved at the time. Investigate that vision rather than just stopping at that constructed error. This changes blame from being a stopping condition and turns it into a jumping point for further understanding)

The authors mention "encouraging a culture of intelligent risk-taking" and "reserving blame for acts of recklessness" (if you want to go that way, I suggest reading Sidney Dekker's Just Culture for a deep-dive on how challenging this is to do right)

In terms of developing this approach, they caution that it should be located within communities of practice, as professionals reflecting and influencing their everyday work among each other. This, they say, is the appropriate place to develop appropriate responses to transgressions, and attaches it to professional values through shared norms and practice, but also slowly trains everyone into being more productive with blame.

While once again recommending more clarity on what we mean exactly by blame, and its potential value beyond the role of "sanction", they conclude:

[W]hile no-blame might be practicable and desirable in some restricted organization settings, an acceptance of blaming, but a tempering of its application, might be more realistic and productive more generally.


Our own suggestion located the development of blaming norms within communities of organizational and professional practice and emphasized that blaming practices are learnt in this context.