James Thompson
Apr 26, 2017

Banish the blame and build a fearless culture

From naming the wrong Oscar winner to failing to question nonsensical orders from on high, mistakes happen all the time, but simply punishing those responsible can create a harmful climate of fear.

Stupendous snafu: Hapless accountants whose error resulted in the Oscars’ biggest ever mistake “banned for life”.
Stupendous snafu: Hapless accountants whose error resulted in the Oscars’ biggest ever mistake “banned for life”.

The recent cock-up at the Oscars gives me cause for reflection as well as amusement. Like me, you probably hope that the leading lights of La La Land have recovered from the very public shock of having their Best Picture trophy so unceremoniously taken away from them. You may be assuming that some combination of fame and financial comfort is helping cushion the blow. But let’s examine what happened more closely. I would suggest there are things for us to learn from the Californian kerfuffle that are somewhat closer to home. 

For starters, why didn’t Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, who were presenting the award, call out that they had so obviously been given the wrong envelope? Unfortunately, this same non-intervention is seen all too often in corporations. Instructions from higher-ups—delivered without adequate understanding of the view from the trenches—can cause stunned or amused reactions from those expected to carry them out.

Sometimes the instructions get lost in translation as they get passed down the line. But how often do such orders get challenged? In the agency world, poorly thought out client briefs are rarely disputed, with the usual consequences being bad work and the agency losing the business. If the ill-conceived instructions had been questioned in the first place, the results could have been happier for all concerned. 

This culture of not questioning orders can take a more sinister turn when targets are involved. Organisations under stress can be pretty fearful things. There are plenty of well-documented cases of people driven to criminal acts, such as manipulating sales or other figures, when their corporate performance has been under scrutiny. Worse still are cases where people have come under pressure to work at inhuman levels, to real detriment to their mental and physical health. The fact that this happens in the 21st century should shame us—but it is all too common and all too unreported. 

Going back to the Oscars, I was interested to note how soon after the mistake was made that the blame game began. Publicly ridiculed and disowned by their own firm, the two hapless PwC accountants who made the error were also “banned for life” from officiating at the Oscars again. How quickly in corporate worlds can the imperative ‘first, seek to establish blame’—masquerading as the principle of accountability—create a witch hunt. 

We can have some gentle fun concerning Hollywood with little harm done, but this episode also offers a mini parable for the corporate lives many of us lead. More important than any target, business or creative challenge is the responsibility we all have to build business cultures that exist
without fear—and with the freedoms of expression and challenge.

James Thompson is global managing director of Diageo Reserve (Diageo’s luxury portfolio).


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