What Happened Here?

Category: People Published on Nov 01 2016

Anna is a lovely woman who inherited a job for which she does not currently have the knowledge and skills, but who has a large store of innate abilities and intelligence. This combination frequently leaves her feeling inadequate and scared of losing her job. In other words, she feels very vulnerable.

Her vulnerability frequently exhibits itself when she points fingers and blames others. According to Brené Brown, a shame researcher and author of Daring Greatly, this behavior is typical of individuals who are experiencing shame. “Blame is simply the discharging of pain and discomfort. We blame when we’re uncomfortable and experience pain – when we’re vulnerable, angry, hurt, in shame, grieving.” p.195


Anna is lucky because she works for a company whose culture values people. Even though she worries about being fired, in reality firing Anna is the last thing that upper management desires. Instead, they are invested in Anna gaining the knowledge, skills, and confidence she needs to do her job well.


What type of culture exists in your company? I’ve worked for many organizations where blame is the game of the day. There is a Geico commercial that illustrates this type of culture perfectly. You see the production line gone haywire. The manager walks ups and asks “Who’s responsible for this?” And the line workers look up and point at Rick. Rick is the scapegoat in a blame game culture.


While this makes for a very funny commercial, it does not make for a great place to work. In reality, what is asked in most companies is “What happened here?”  rather than “Who’s responsible for this?” However, employees always know when the underlying question is really: “Who is to blame? Who can we yell at?”


In a culture that rests on respect and trust the question “What happened here?” has a very different meaning. In this culture, the conversation will proceed dramatically differently because there is a sincere desire to understand exactly where things went awry. Not so someone can be blamed; instead, so that knowledge can be gained, systems and processes can be fixed, and personal growth is facilitated.


Regardless of the culture, asking this question can be uncomfortable. And keeping the conversation focused on growth can be a challenge until people are used to the concept of learning from mistakes rather than blaming or sweeping them under the carpet. However, by setting expectations in advance that there are going to be uncomfortable times and that if there are not, people are missing opportunities for growth, you empower people to take ownership of their personal and professional growth.


How do you personally respond when things go wrong? When you ask: “What happened here?” are you really looking for Rick the Scapegoat? Or are you searching for opportunities to improve as an organization, a group, and an individual?