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Column: Ask questions before making accusations

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It seems like all levels of our governing organizations get into far too much finger-pointing and blaming of someone, somewhere, who did not do something right. It is the grand drama of Washington, and I hope we do not get infected with this at our local community level.

It is a huge waste of time and energy, and beyond that, it creates a culture that makes it difficult to do things. We’ve seen this, to a degree, with Columbus City Council and the mayor, most recently over the mayor’s demotion of former Parks and Recreation Department Director Ben Wagner.

We live in a world of growing complexity and lessening understanding. As I read the “onions” in The Republic, I often wonder if those throwing the stones are aware of the total situation surrounding their complaint. We seem to have lost the ability to ask questions, find out how things work, find out what broke down and ask what do we need to do to make it work. Instead we are happy to blame someone and feel like we have done our jobs.

Let me give you a simple example.

About 20 years ago as I was walking through a factory with an executive, we came upon a machine that was idle and the operator was just sitting there. As we approached, the executive started to get angry and wanted to give this guy a piece of his mind for sitting down on the job.

I stopped him and said, “Let’s just go ask some questions first.” We did, and there were several good reasons for the machine being down and for him just waiting on maintenance. As we walked away, I brought up the issue of creating “blaming culture” and how that affects things. He agreed that his first inclination is to blame.

That is very common in most work cultures.

So what happens when we create a blame culture? First, it kills joint problem-solving by creating separations and defensive positions. We spend more time attacking rather than solving. In those situations, every comment is looked at with suspicion.

Secondly, it hides good and early information. When subordinates live in a blame culture, they do a lot of covering up of mistakes, hiding bad news, playing with the numbers, distorting the facts.

Does this sound familiar on the national scene? We cannot afford that in our local scene.

Blaming also kills creativity. When someone wants to put forth a new idea or way of doing something, they begin to second-guess themselves.

They begin to believe it is better to play it safe, rather than risk the wrath of the finger-pointing boss. This is what creates a classic bureaucrat, the one who keeps his head down and hopes nothing goes wrong.

But it is inevitable that things will go wrong. Things fall through the cracks. Decisions backfire or simply don’t work out. Anyone who has tried to run an organization knows this is a fact of life.

The question is, do those in charge create a culture where people are quick to ask what is going on, to get data about what happened, to be willing to share that information, to cross organizational boundaries to find solutions and to make operations as transparent as possible? That is a culture that focuses on improving things and makes it safe to raise issues.

Now, some may ask if there is ever a time to blame. Of course there is, if after all the data are clear and mutually understood, and there is someone working with malice, with dishonest intent, or otherwise trying to consciously harm the organization/community, then it is appropriate to blame and take action.

When someone makes a mistake, did not have knowledge of an operation or lacked the needed information, then that is an opportunity for an improvement, training or simplifying.

Making things work well is hard enough without adding to the problem with a negative culture.

Columbus retiree Tom Lane is the latest addition to our contributors for the weekly Community Column. He served as a consultant to a number of companies in his career. In recent years his has been a familiar name to readers of The Republic’s letters to the editor. He can be reached at

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