Pointing the Finger Is a Human Trait: We Must Learn to Do It Well

President Harry S. Truman is shown at his desk at the White House signing a proclamation declaring a national emergency. December 16, 1950. Acme. (USIA) NARA FILE #: 306-PS-50-16807 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 1372
President Harry S. Truman is shown at his desk at the White House signing a proclamation declaring a national emergency. December 16, 1950. Acme. (USIA)
NARA FILE #: 306-PS-50-16807

Harry Truman famously kept a sign on his desk in the Oval Office reading “The Buck Stops Here.”  It was an overt declaration that he took ultimate responsibility for every choice his administration made, for everything they did or failed to do.  He assumed the blame.  And that’s an admirable trait in a leader—it builds trust and wins the respect of team members to know their leader is willing to take the blame for mistakes the team makes.  It goes back to justice: no one wants to be blamed for something for which they aren’t personally at fault.  Because whenever something goes wrong, there must be someone to blame, someone to be punished if necessary.  That’s a basic fact of human nature.  People think in terms of cause and effect: if something bad happened, someone or something must have screwed up to cause it.  But admirable as it is for a leader to assume responsibility for everything, blaming the person in charge isn’t enough.  Nor is just blaming the person at the point of failure, or picking a random scapegoat.  Simplistic ways of apportioning responsibility for mistakes, without in-depth analysis, allow us to gloss over the necessary response to failures: to figure out what actually went wrong, and how to fix it.  Pointing the finger is a human trait, but if leaders want their organizations to learn and improve, they must learn to do it well.

The key aspect of a learning culture is the ability to receive feedback that allows leaders to improve systems.  But the ability to improve systems is dependent entirely on the quality of the feedback leaders receive: they can only fix problems if they know what actually caused the problem in the first place.  Which means that they must have a system in place that allows them to gather accurate data and feedback.  Such a system, then, requires a delicate balance.  First, it must ensure that employees trust they will be treated fairly and justly, or they will not honestly report mistakes and areas for improvement.  If there is no sense of justice, there can be no learning culture, because information will not be reported for fear of being treated unjustly.  But the system must also be able to accurately identify the root causes of problems—to point the finger at the right person or people or systemic failure—and hold those responsible accountable.  A “no blame” culture is just as problematic as a strictly punitive culture in terms of learning and improvement.

Only when these two aspects are in place (accurate investigation and accountability combined with a sense of justice and fairness) can leaders learn from mistakes and improve the systems that bring them about.  Only if they can identify the person responsible for an error (pointing the finger accurately) can they then identify if it was indeed a simple error, or a risky choice due to an individual or systemic drift from procedural compliance, or reckless (or even intentionally harmful) action.  And only when that has been identified can they then determine if there were any systemic performance shaping factors that may have led to the error—factors that can be improved to reduce the likelihood of such an error in the future.  Or if the investigation reveals no such systemic factors were at play, they can decide the appropriate just response (consoling, coaching, retraining, punitive action, etc).  But this response—taking the appropriate reaction for the responsible individual(s) and possibly identifying and correcting systemic problems—can only occur if the leaders manage to get the first part right and point the finger well.  Letting the team leader take the blame may win him or her the respect of the team, but it does nothing for organizational learning and improvement.

Learning to point the finger accurately, to identify the root causes of problems and respond to them appropriately, is not only required for justice and employee trust and morale.  It is a sound business decision.  High-quality systems of investigation and accountability like the Just Culture (Workplace Accountability) Model are an investment in organizational learning and improvement.  When something goes wrong, it is natural to want to point the finger.  But leaders must learn to do it well if they want to make their organizations better.


Aaron Haskins, Outcome Engenuity Advisor.

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