When Bosses Blame, They Destroy Learning. Here’s Why.

His Fault Her Fault Their Fault Not Me. Blame shifting.
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We know these people already. They finger-point everywhere except themselves. They see the office as a jungle and make it so. They play the blame game and believe that’s the only game in town. And when they rise up through the leadership ranks, they make sure they toughen up the environment. They believe they must run a tight ship. 

Of course, this is self-fulfilling prophecy. These leaders have created the reality of an office that fits with their personal narrative—a narrative that channels through a peculiar worldview. 

Nobel prize–winning economist Daniel Kahneman observed how such a culture festers in militaries, not because of bad intentions, but because people interpret it the wrong way. In the Israeli Air Force, fighter pilots had this mystical belief that giving praise would lead to bad performance. Blame and reprimands would yield better outcomes. Instructors observed that in the Air Force, cadets performed better on flights after being scolded, and they often flew worse after receiving praise. 

The result was leaders developing a particular worldview that blame is effective in getting pilots to focus better. Positive feedback makes people cocky. Leaders must be tough in order to lead well.

Does that sound familiar? It’s also how some parents teach their kids.

What You See Depends on Where You Stand

We say that seeing is believing. But the reverse is even truer. Believing leads to seeing. When someone perform poorly, you shout at them. If they can’t improve, you keep punishing them. And if that person withers and clamps up, you let them go, because it simply proves that they lack the “right stuff.” Such a personal belief will always be supported by consistent, first-hand observations. No one can puncture it. 

Fortunately, Kahneman saw the deep flaw in all this. Flight performance turns out to be a game of chance. Performance depends on the weather, the sleep quality during the night before, and the condition of the aircraft. All a pilot can ever hope for is to improve their batting average. But you can never pin down one particular flight perfectly. Too many factors are outside the control of the pilot. 

What that means, in statistical terms, is that there is an iron law of “regression to the mean.” When a competent pilot has a poor flight, the “outlier” performance is unlikely to repeat the next time. The next flight is likely to be back to the average performance. 

Guess what—that’s when the supervisor was pouring blame on the pilot. And so, it looks as if the blame caused the pilot to improve! The irony, of course, is there are many fully capable individuals who start to doubt themselves because of the blame. And they can’t recover because of self-doubt. They start to become so self-conscious that they become unhinged. They “choke.” And a downward spiral ensues. 

Of course, the supervisor then thinks the pilot lacks the “right stuff.” The pilot should never have been recruited. Something inside has always been broken—let’s get the person out. 

I’m not sure who’s really broken in this case. 

Once you hear this story, you start to see a similar mindset everywhere. And I expect that’s why, despite all the talk about “psychological safety,” we still see leaders who inspire fear all the time. It’s not that they can’t change. But deep down, they just don’t believe that it works. They truly believe being a terrifying boss is their authentic self. “That’s who I am,” they’ll say. And it’s a proven way to squeeze performance out of the people around me. They’ll say, “Just look at my track record.” 

Putting the human cost aside, here is the more damning consequences when leaders blame: People stop bringing up relevant datapoints. In such an environment, people cover themselves up. They hope in vain that the impending disaster will somehow vanish. And since leaders don’t have visibility on the full scope of a problem, they can’t even think about how to fix it until it’s too late. Cascade these dynamics across all levels, and you have a company that can’t learn anything. It can’t even see. It’s an angry drunk throwing punches in the dark. 

Pretend Everything Is Under Control

Here’s the original observation by Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School. She’s the one who coined the term “psychology safety.” She found a hospital where fear lived. She saw a few medical wards in this hospital suffered from a harsh culture. There, a nurse manager would “dress impeccably in a business suit.” The leader would have tough conversations with nurses “behind closed doors.” Nurses described how mistakes were penalized. You “get put on trial” and “heads roll.”

As expected, the tougher the medical unit, the fewer errors were reported. But when Edmondson probed further, she discovered something more sinister. The nurses who worked in this more disciplined unit with strong accountability actually made more errors. They just didn’t talk about it openly. In other words, people were so frightened that they have no choice but to cover up. 

The tough leader with a tough routine was completely oblivious to the lack of learning and knowledge-sharing in the organization. The leader may agree that humans only learn from past mistakes. But they turn their heads around and bark, “Bring me the solution, not the problem.” So much for learning. 

Most interesting of all is that Edmondson’s work found the most willing audience not in health care. Instead, her most ardent following is from Silicon Valley. Google went so far as to codify psychological safety as part of its cultural formulation. 

It shouldn’t be too surprising. Certain industries require learning new stuff more than others. In IT, disruption is constant. Consumer taste is fickle, new technology unpredictable. You can’t fully develop a marketing plan before rolling it out. But you also need to quickly adjust and pivot depending on the market data coming in. If you mess up one product launch, your stock price tanks. If you miss twice, you’re sent home packing. It’s an industry where only the paranoid survives.

When Learning Trumps Knowing 

In an industry where things are moving fast, the winners are the ones that can learn faster. Past experience matters, but learning new stuff matters even more. So, you can imagine that on average, the IT sector would have a stronger learning outlook than ones like the finance or auto sector. It’s just the result of survivor selection. Those who survive a high-velocity industry are the ones that have a bias for learning. 

You can actually see this pattern on a graph. 
At IMD, we carry out textual analyses in a big-data style. We’ve downloaded 10 years of business publications. Among these are the standard bearers, like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and the like. We feed them into an algorithm for analysis.

When Bosses Blame, They Destroy Learning. Here’s Why. -

We score companies along two dimensions. On the horizontal axis, it’s their learning orientation. Are these companies open to new learning and new experiences? Or do they prefer the known world with certainties? On the vertical axis, it’s how digitally savvy these companies are—in other words, to what extent they have mastered hot areas such as artificial intelligence, advanced automation, and data analytics. 

Obviously, IT companies must score very high on digital savviness. But more interestingly, they also score much higher on their learning outlook. Now, you may ask, so what? 

In previous times, companies could choose to operate inside their own cocoons. What’s happening today is that industry boundaries are disappearing. A car is really a supercomputer on four wheels. A bank can exist online, moving digital money around. As industries converge, tech companies are expanding far beyond the traditional IT world. Google and Apple have car projects. Alibaba is running one of the largest banks in China. Visa and Mastercard are no longer just credit card companies but are becoming payment and settlement organizations. 

Meanwhile, traditional companies desperately need to master new skills in the digital realm. If you’re Toyota, you need to master over-the-air software updates and autonomous driving like Google’s Waymo. If you’re JP Morgan Chase, you have to provide customers with seamless mobile services, like Alibaba does.

All these require capability building. All these mean new learning. Because if they don’t, Silicon Valley is coming at you to learn your old tricks and then eat you alive. 

Now, I don’t have a strong opinion about which side will win. Maybe it’s more difficult for an IT company to learn to assemble a car than for a car company to learn how to code software. It’s a debate no one can resolve. But what the chart shows above is there are companies whose success is rooted in their ability to learn, not their past experience. And they know it.

What we now see is that a company’s outlook is brought on by how bosses carry themselves. Do leaders see mistakes as real opportunities to learn? Do they have the ability to dive into the details in new areas together with their managers? Are they willing to master new skills in order to understand a new situation?  

That’s how the personal behavior of a leader shapes a company’s outlook. And a collection of surviving companies give rise to the distinctiveness of an industry. Things don’t happen just randomly. 

Thanks for reading—and be well.

When Bosses Blame, They Destroy Learning. Here’s Why. -

This article has been co-authored with Angelo Boutalikakis, a Research Associate at IMD’s Center For Future Readiness.

Leave a Comment

8 comments

  1. Kenneth Phalan

    In the US Marine Corps I was taught to put the needs of those below you ahead of your own. That’s what good leaders do. That is what people respond to, namely that you care about them first.

    1. Thank you so much Ken! It’s a great observation and wonderful to hear from you as well. Hope to see you soon and I’ll get to hear all these learnings from you.

  2. This explains a lot! Thank you for sharing truth as we all must lead ourselves and take responsibility.

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