When Playing it Safe is a Sign You’re at Risk

April 8, 2015

In these times, when change is one of the only constants, many companies are feeling the pressure to think differently; to move at least parallel, if not ahead of, the trends. It seems necessary to stay competitive and relevant. But, what happens when your team is functioning in the status quo or the days of yore? Thinking about PalmPilots instead of Apple Watches?

What is preventing new ideas from being whispered excitedly or shouted enthusiastically? Could it be…fear? Fear of what? Failure, disapproval, disrepute? Or, worse?

One of the biggest obstacles to inventive thinking is what I like to call a “blame culture.” I actually thought this was my own term until I looked it up and read several stories similar to my own experiences with this toxic kind of work environment.

According to a Harvard Business Review article, “Groups and organizations with a rampant culture of blame have a serious disadvantage when it comes to creativity, learning, innovation, and productive risk-taking.” I’ve seen it first hand, and I couldn’t agree more!

How do you know you’re in a situation where hands are used for finger pointing instead of high fiving? It’s usually not hard to tell. Does this sound like you?


CYA is Nothing to LOL About. Do you find that most people use email as a (paperless) paper trail rather than an everyday convenience? Who is being copied on those emails and what is the agenda for doing so? Is it to thoughtfully keep everyone in the loop or, conversely, to make others feel threatened or to serve as proof when the S hits the F?

Chance of Storms: 95%. Is there turbulence in your office? Is it coming from your leadership? When things don’t go as planned, a calm, objective, evaluative process should follow. If, instead, it’s always a fierce hailstorm of accusations and scapegoating that has everyone running for cover, well, that’s a problem. Who’s going to share their ideas, let alone take ownership of them, under these conditions?

Surprise, Surprise. In blame cultures, oftentimes clear expectations aren’t expressed up front, whether we’re talking about a specific project or the overall company mission and values. This is an avoidance tactic that allows pretty much everyone involved to shirk responsibility, whether it’s the ones delivering or the ones dictating. Sneaky, huh?

More Filters Than Instagram. When fear is driving actions, it’s common to pander to the accepted norms and buffer higher ups from hearing any ideas that might challenge those norms. This may mean that the company’s leadership is made inaccessible to the average worker, or that the information that reaches the top level has been carefully crafted or weakened to the point of irrelevance. Bummer.  

If fear of blame or negative consequences is quashing creativity and innovation in your organization, what can you do? For this, I go back to that Harvard Business Review article. As they suggest, others’ behavioral examples can make blaming go viral, but they can also cure it. What they also say, I couldn’t say better myself. So, I’m sharing it here:

“[To prevent the spread of blame], here are a few practical steps you can take:

  • Don’t blame others for your mistakes. The temptation is huge to point the finger elsewhere when you make a mistake. Resist it. Not only will you gain respect and loyalty from your followers, you’ll also help to prevent a culture of blame from emerging.
  • When you do blame, do so constructively. There are times when people’s mistakes really do need to be surfaced in public. In these cases, make sure to highlight that the goal is to learn from mistakes, not to publicly humiliate those who make them.
  • Set an example by confidently taking ownership for failures. Our findings showed that blame was contagious, but not among those who felt psychologically secure. So try to foster a chronic sense of inner security in order to reduce the chances that you’ll lash out at others.
  • Always focus on learning. Creating a culture where learning — rather than avoiding mistakes — is the top priority will help to ensure that people feel free talk about and learn from their errors.
  • Reward people for making mistakes. Some companies are actually starting to incentivize employees to make mistakes, so long as the mistakes can teach valuable lessons that lead to future innovation.”

The last one is my favorite. What an innovative idea, eh?


Allison is currently living out the elaborate fantasy she described to her now-former staff and colleagues in early 2001. With a hearty dose of courage and absolutely no plan of action, she abruptly left her middle-management job to become a writer—and today she is doing just that in her role as Baudville's Senior Content Writer. She's here to tell you everything she's learned in her 20-years+ professional life, plus a lot more. She's wordy like that!

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