A Culture of Blame, Belittlement and Punishment
Written on: March 15, 2021 by Roger Daviston
A business is a system of relationships. Individuals within the company system also come from another, called the family system. These family systems are all different, and each one has its toxic patterns. These harmful patterns carry over into the corporate structure and act as a pathogen to the system, which causes the system to become sick and function poorly.
I never really understood what I am about to tell you as a child or young adult, but I experienced it in many different contexts throughout my life from my father. His behavior was abusive and caused me unnecessary stress. My father carried this behavior into the business systems he created, and an employee once sued him for creating a hostile work environment. He was found guilty.
An instance of lost keys led to a long-repeated, unaddressed pattern of in-office abuse for the author.
It started with car keys…
One morning when I was 25 years old, I arrived at work at 6:00 a.m. in a good mood. My father and I were equal partners building a new business in Atlanta. As I was filling out a work order for an insulation crew, my father came into my office, and said:
Father: Where are my car keys?
Roger: I don’t know.
Father: What did you do with them?
Roger: I have not seen your keys and did not move them.
Father: Yes, you did. Where the @#$%! did you move them?
Then he flew into an uncontrollable rage, blaming me for something I did not do. A few minutes later, he found his keys, which he had misplaced, but never apologized. Whenever my dad got stressed, he would escape into blaming others for his problems, rage at them and never apologize. It was the big elephant in the room about which we never talked. We always swept it under the rug, merely hoping it would go away. It never did.
In clinical psychology, this pattern follows the characteristics of an “alcoholic family system.” While my dad did not drink and was not an alcoholic, the pattern was the same. The family does not talk about the alcoholic, much like we did not talk about my dad’s rage. We all lived in fear of when he would explode. My dad escaped into blame and anger, much like an alcoholic would turn into drunkenness for relief.
It’s interesting to note that when a person rages, they generally feel depressed afterward, much like an alcoholic feels after a binge. The rager does not like his or herself, but can’t help the behavior.
The owner of a company who allows this type of behavior (explosive anger) creates a hostile work environment, where words and actions negatively or severely impact another employee’s ability to complete their work. Please note that any employee can create a hostile work environment; it’s not only the owner.
Explosive anger shuts down everyone’s brain and severely impacts the team’s ability to do anything for the rest of the day. After this explosion from my father, my outlook and how I felt about him and the business went down. My performance suffered, and he continued to harass me with his accusations and blame when I wasn’t guilty. He created a hostile work environment 35 years ago, and it caught up with him and lawsuits, etc., cost him a lot of money in his old age.
Are you working in a culture of blame? Let me illustrate a mild form of the blame game. I built a call center that functions as an extension of a company’s customer service department so the company can be open, book and dispatch calls 24 hours a day and on holidays. It doesn’t take messages, and it is not an answering service. The team learns a script, and for the most part, they stay onscript, but not always because they are human.
I wrote the script so that it is not assumed every call is urgent and instead we get the customer’s expectation about when he/she would like a technician to come out. Then we book the call based on his/her expectations, not ours.
In the script, we also ask the system’s age because systems over 10 years old are like gold. If you are primarily an air-conditioning company, you know full well how hard it is to make ends meet while transitioning from a mild winter to hot weather.
On the first hot day of the spring, Tawiah followed the script, booked three trouble calls and determined that each system was more than 10 years old. These three trouble calls came in after 6:30 p.m. Tawiah followed the script and asked the customers when they would like technicians to come out, and they requested the next day.
I immediately got a text message from the owner blaming Tawiah for making a mistake: Your team just royally @#$% up! Why in the hell would I want to wait until tomorrow to run these calls?
I promptly called the owner and said: If you expect that we will steer the ten-year-old golden opportunities into the on-call night process and book these calls for tonight, that is fine. Please clarify that so I can communicate this to the team. We cannot read your mind.
He responded: Okay, I’ll give you that. He did not apologize.
We talked a few days later, and he expressed that he was still pretty angry that we did not book the calls for that night. I understand his frustration and desire to go quickly because of his anxiety to increase revenue and overcome a slow, warm winter. However, his response to his disappointment was toxic. He escaped into anger, looked for someone to blame and then did not apologize.
This pattern repeats itself throughout his culture, and there is a very high turnover at his company. Do you see the same pattern in him as in my father?
The fall out
While I was able to shield Tawiah from this toxicity, I could not protect his team. Here are a few comments from a person who decided to leave the company:
• This is a miserable place to work.
• I feel so much better having left.
• I did not realize how much the stress was ruining my weekends.
• My marriage was being affected.
• I wanted to be appreciated and valued. (Don’t we all?)
When things went wrong, the worker was blamed and belittled, or regarded as less than important, and was depreciated and disparaged. Belittlement is a form of bullying, and if you are allowing it in your culture, you are at risk of a lawsuit.
Love works better
Anne is a member of our Ukrainian team, which books and dispatches service calls after hours, on weekends and on holidays. She is faithful, honest and we can depend on her. However, Anne is not perfect—who is? Anne makes mistakes as we all do, but I am pleased when I look over her performance. Indeed, Anne needs to improve and grow, but I would give her an “A” if I were to grade her.
One year, I decided to take New Year’s Eve off, and I planned to sleep in late. Anne covers the New York Time zone from 11:00 p.m. until 7:00 a.m. I woke up at about 6:30 a.m., which is late for me. I planned a morning of relaxation, or so I thought.
I checked my phone, which I had left in the living room, and Anne had left me a message. I also had a missed call from her at 2:00 a.m. She said, Please can you help me? I went to a friend’s house to work and left my charging chord at home. My laptop battery died, and I am offline.
I was a bit distressed and aggravated about this mistake. It was 6:30 a.m., and we book a lot of calls early before clients open. I immediately logged in, looked at the call history file, and quickly determined that no one called, so this mistake caused no damage. I handled two calls, and by 7:00 a.m., all of our clients took their phones back without incident.
I called Anne after all of this was over, and she told me what happened. I merely said, Lesson learned, please be more careful in the future.
Why did I not condemn, blame, belittle, disparage or punish her? Because I am no better than Anne and have had to learn the same lessons. You see, over the last 20 years, I forgot to show up to my webinars twice. The students registered for the class and waited for the teacher, and the teacher never showed. I needed their grace, and Anne needed mine.
Moving past mistakes
To make mistakes is part of the human condition, so when we see one, why are we shocked? If there is a pattern of repeating the same errors, then the person is not learning. Handle this type of behavior firmly with consequences, but in love. Other mistakes are simply the way we learn. Mistakes are merely feedback that we need to change something.
Is your culture a culture of blame, condemnation, ridicule and punishment? If so, I encourage you to change your thinking. Ask this simple question when a mistake happens: What can we learn from this, and how can we improve?
One last note—forgiveness is a powerful spiritual principle. My dad is 86 years old, and he is moving to an assisted living facility today as I finish this article. He and I have an excellent relationship. While he does still not see his toxic pattern, I have chosen to forgive him anyway. He has not changed.
I don’t tell you the story about my father to dishonor him. I am transparent in hopes that others will connect with the account and begin their healing.
If you work in a culture of blame and feel trapped, you are not. If you are the owner of a company that fosters a culture of blame and don’t like it, embrace the fact that you allowed it or created it. Acceptance and self-awareness is the first step in changing. If you want to change it, reach out to me, and we can talk about how I can facilitate the growth and change in your culture. If you feel trapped in a toxic culture and don’t know how to respond, I can help you, too. Please feel free to contact me at Tel: 205-837-3643 or E-mail: [email protected]. ICM