The Blame Game

Whether we are talking about planning, assessments, monitoring, or any other managerial function it is good practice to also talk about what I like to call the “p” words, psychology and politics. Here is a little tidbit I’ve been thinking about again recently.

How often do we resort to blaming others for our own problems/failings? Think first of international relations and war. Think second of our own families. Think third of the organizations we work for and with. Admittedly, everything depends on everything and relationships are a two-way street. But I still believe that much of our undiscussed, and often undiscussable conflict derives from our own inability to see ourselves as others see us. This too, is a two-way street. Anyone or any groups we are in conflict with usually have the same problem, which we might think of as a special case of “frame blindness.”

(See generally Chris Argyris’ Action Science ideas. For the Forest Service specifically, see my Catch-22 and Maladaptive Organizations, and on “frame blindness” and other decision traps, see How to Avoid Harebrained, Cockamamie Schemes.)

Not only do we too-often think of ourselves as victims, but usually “frame” ourselves as well-meaning heroes — hardworking, fair and sensitive heroes — stopped in our tracks by those who we vilify as enemies, or malcontents, who we to-often view as lazy, inconsiderate, unappreciative, and insensitive. The problem gets worse as each side digs in, nurturing a co-dependency. In organizations the problem spreads as more and more people buy into the blame game, setting up a contagion that afflicts entire organizations.

I just finished a little book, Leadership and Self-Deception (2000, Second edition 2010, link) that captures the organizational “blame game” well. Importantly, the authors give hints on how to move beyond victim/blame both in interpersonal relations, management and leadership, and organizational effectiveness measures.

One key toward organizational betterment is to learn to appreciate people as people, not as cogs in organizational machinery. Another key is to learn how to accept and share responsibility for organizational problems. In an afterword, the authors describe how in applying lessons learned from the book a CEO instituted a new way of tracking and dealing with problems in a company:

Whereas before, he would go to the person he thought was causing the problem and demand that the person fix it, the CEO began to consider how he himself might have contributed to the problem. He then convened a meeting including each person in the chain of command down to the level where the problem was manifest. He began the meeting by identifying the problem. He laid out all the ways he thought he had negatively contributed to the culture that had produced the problem and proposed a plan to rectify his contributions to the problem. He invited the person directly below him to do the same thing. And so on down the line. By the time it got to the person most immediately responsible for the problem, that person publicly took responsibility for his contributions to the problem and the proposed a plan for what he would do about it. In this way, a problem that had gone on literally for years was solved nearly overnight when the leaders stopped simply assigning responsibility and began holding themselves strictly accountable.

See too: Difficult Conversations (1999) ( link) (Google Books preview)

None of this is new, of course, both the aforementioned books were written around 2000. In a 2006 Forest Policy-Forest Practice post titled Perplexed by Principles for Process Improvement , I alluded to the “power-over” v. “power-with” dilemma, and reiterated my 2003 suggestion to get us beyond gridlock by beginning the journey toward true collaboration.

Maybe I was planting seeds of thought, maybe I was whistling in the wind. Maybe the time is right now, or is yet to come. But maybe it will never come!

Why ? Despite rhetoric to the contrary, Capital P “Politics” is a power-over game, and US government agency administration is “political”. It used to be that the Timber Barons and their Congressional and Administration lackeys were never far from earshot of anything that the Forest Service did (remember especially the 1950s through 1970s or 80s). Now the game has shifted, and Fire Money (and assoicated power) has more sway, as increasingly does Recreation Money. Maybe we will get a chance for better collaboration, even adaptive co-management as the Resilience Alliance folks call it.

But I won’t be surprised if we don’t. I have been hoping for a “collaborative future” for a very long time, but I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve not fallen into the insanity trap: doing (saying) the same things over and over, and expecting different results.

Returning to more optimistic thoughts, Leadership and Self-Deception got me to thinking about other books like Argyris and Schön’s Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitating Organizational Learning, (1990) and Susan Scott’s Fierce Conversations (2002). (See my 2005 Forest Policy-Practice Fierce Conversations post). Only after learning to own up to and defeat the victim/blame game do we have any chance at other important organizational learning opportunities.

A key question: Is it really possible, or remotely likely that the US Forest Service (or any other large government bureau) will ever be able to move beyond the blame game?

8 thoughts on “The Blame Game”

  1. Dave- you have given us a lot to think about (and order from the library).
    In pursuing the link to Action Science, I noticed Action Strategies –

    Design situations where participants can originate actions and can experience high personal causation and success.
    Jointly control tasks.
    Make protection of self and others a joint enterprise.
    Craft positions or behaviors into action strategies that openly illustrate how the actors reached their evaluations or attributions, and how they crafted them to encourage inquiry and testing by others. ”

    This sounds like a FACA committee to me..I think the key concept is that it’s not just about the FS , but that this enterprise we are all embarked upon (public land management) may call for a change in all of our internal and external behaviors. It is a joint enterprise of all of us.
    Anyway, I will look some more at your cites.

  2. Sharon,

    While I was mulling over the post, I was talking with Dave Thomas (retired) about what the FS Leadership Team might be up to w/r/t “Dialogos”. Do you have any insight as to what they are up to,and how the Leadership Team is going to bring in the “rest of the FS” into play on Dialogos stuff?

  3. The first principle for a new planning rule that is listed in the December 18 Federal Register notice is the idea that plans could address the need for restoration and conservation to enhance the resilience of ecosystems. A challenge for us will be to embrace those terms, but do it in a way that we engage in the type of conversations that Dave is advocating.

    Most definitions of restoration ecology explain that the science is based on studying ways of renewing degraded, damaged, or destroyed ecosystems through active human intervention.

    But before we can apply the concept of restoration to Forest Service planning, we first have to admit that we have ecosystems that are degraded, damaged, or destroyed. Since most of these lands were in the hands of the Forest Service well before they were developed, the identification of degraded lands might imply that some line officer along the way did something wrong. In upcoming meetings, how do we engage in this conversation on the planning rule Notice without becoming defensive? How do we get the dialogue to focus on the potentially severe ecological crises that are described in the Notice?

    A widely used organizational development process in use today is appreciative inquiry, based on the work of David Cooperrider of Case Western Reserve University in the 1980s.
    This approach has been used in a few Forest planning efforts which were begun under the 2005/2008 rule, and has also been used in other countries.
    Here’s an example of its use in Manitoba, Canada:

    Appreciative inquiry is based on the assumption that organizations change in the way they inquire, and that any organization which inquires into problems or difficult situations will keep finding more of the same but an organization which tries to appreciate what is best in itself will find/discover more of what is good. In the case of ecosystems, looking for degraded, damaged, or destroyed ecosystems will lead to the discovery of more degraded, damaged, or destroyed ecosystems. But a different approach might be to discover the values, roles, and contributions that National Forests are providing today, and build upon those. It’s two sides of the same coin, but everyone who has used this process has marveled at how well it improves communication.

  4. Another point is that “restoration ecology” is just one approach to restoration – a function of the splintering of the biodisciplines. We have systems ecologists, landscape ecologists, conservation biologists, etc. etc. and who speaks for what needs to be restored? To what condition? Given climate change, is that realistic?
    Another way of approaching the same question is “what about our land and water is suboptimal, to whom, and what can we afford to do about it, given future trends?”
    Then we can hash that out with the public, the soils scientists, hydrologists, riparian ecologists, aquatic biologists, etc. etc.

    To me, buck for buck in terms of investment, the watershed folks have clear ideas of what they consider good and bad. It is much harder for us veg people, especially once we explicitly consider conflicting human values for vegetation composition, structure and function, instead of hiding value choices under the mantle of HRV.

  5. Dave-
    I am pretty much a “face value” kind of person, so here is my take. Dialogos wrote a report on FS culture, which I think is fairly available. I remember that we were too collegial.. that’s when I developed performance goals for myself to be 30% less collegial. I think they facilitate discussions of our leadership and as long as the leadership seems to be making good decisions (which on my pet topics, they are), I assume that Dialogos must be doing a good job. I don’t really believe it’s the (sometimes hokey) models consultants use, but more or less the excellence of their staff and their ability to make useful interventions with a given group.
    Couldn’t resist this cartoon…click on it if you can’t read the text..

  6. Here is information on the Dialogos report that Dave and Sharon are talking about.

    Also, regarding Sharon’s earlier post that the discussion about water is easier than the discussion about forest conditions, perhaps it’s because we can understand and agree on the value of clean water and abundant flows, but it’s harder to understand and agree on the complexity, balance, and value of tree structure, density, age, mortality, and decay processes.

    Regarding restoration, here is a recent speech describing the vision of the Chief:

  7. Dave: I think you have hit the nail on the head. Every success I have seen in NF management occurred when all people involved got beyond themselves and their narrow views and spent time getting to see others and themselves differently. The longleaf restoration programs in the SE were this way. The RACNAC on roadless. What you have written should be part of the introduction in the new rule. Or at least the preamble tot he collaboration portion of it.

    As for your question, “Is it really possible, or remotely likely that the US Forest Service (or any other large government bureau) will ever be able to move beyond the blame game?” I absolutely think yes. Ask anyone in the agency who has dealt with me, one of the biggest litigants against the agency over the past two decades. I have seen the changes in the people (and thus the culture) of the USFS. More importantly, I have seen the changes in me and some of the folks on the enviro community. And even in the timber industry. If anything, folks outside the agency may have further to go than those inside it do. But I have full faith that we can get there, and sooner rather than later. Thanks.

  8. Thanks Ray,

    I’m actually more optimistic than represented by my post. I too believe that things can change, whether we are talking about health care reform, financial/banking reform, forest planning morphing into adaptive co-management, or even so-called entitlements reform.

    But the lag time between opportunities for change and actual changes is beginning to appear to me longer than my life span, so I’m beginning to get anxious. But when I pause to reflect, I tell friends, “Maybe all we are doing is planting seeds that will grow to help change agents in future times.”

    Or just maybe the “audacity of hope” will indeed bloom beyond hope to action, and we’ll see needed changes sooner rather than later. Hope springs eternal! Even, sometimes, my own hope.


Leave a Comment