The Un-Blame Game

2 minute read

One of the work practices I thoroughly embraced from previous jobs is creating a blameless culture with people I work with. I am fortunate to work with some of the smartest and most passionate people in the tech industry. A healthy work dynamic can be a force multiplier for teams and the impact they can make. Conversely, a “blameful” or “blame-fearing” culture can reduce the work potential for a team, amplify problems, and result in burn out.

Blameless Postmortems

Having come from the SRE/DevOps/Production Engineering world, I would be remiss to not start this off with postmortems. When something goes wrong, the best practice is to focus on the actions not the individual. Blaming an individual creates a chilling effect where team members are incentivized to cover their own tracks, involvement, or issues for fear of being blamed for a problem. A recent example of this is the Salesforce outage, the employee who was trying a quick fix “had action taken” against him. The other team members may be less willing to take an action or even follow a playbook if they feel that there is a chance of blame.

Blameless Escalations

Escalations are a good thing, they enable you and your team to quickly surface when something is critically broken. They can be used to indicate disagreements with other teams or an incident that requires a larger response, but it can also surface internal team issues. As someone working on a team that is still staffing up, I’ve been holding close to the advice that I got from a former colleague: if you find people on your team that you would describe as heroes, then there’s something wrong. Your team or working group should be able to:

  • Not fall over when people take vacation.
  • Not need to overwork.
  • Be able to think ahead of the next day/week/month.

When any of these things are not true, the right move is to escalate when something can’t get done. It makes it clear to the people above you that something needs to change and is a critical part of managing your management.

Blameless Working Groups

An observation that I’ve made recently is that a lot of cross-functional groups within the tech industry are generally geared towards shipping products in one form or another. I’ve been part of a lot of cross-functional working groups that have fallen apart primarily because the common goal has been de-emphasized or forgotten. If you find yourself in a situation where you are blaming a team member or a colleague, try to shift your focus to understand what their incentives are and how you can align yourselves and them to the right path.

For example, as a privacy subject matter expert and a part of a privacy review process, I typically will communicate that my job is to make it so that your product or feature can launch in the best way possible. If you suspect that there in fact isn’t an alignment or if there’s a disagreement, then that might be a good candidate for escalation as mentioned above.