This is a follow-up to my REdeploy 2019 talk Beyond Blameless, which is about the way Blameless PostMortems—as they are commonly practiced—can actually make us less resilient, and what we can do about it. I want to summarize a few key points here and also list all of my references, since people have asked for them (and there are so many). Here is the talk:
If you watched the talk and have questions or want to talk to me about it, please feel free to @ me! (If you read some or all of the summary below and think I am very wrong, please do me the courtesy of watching the actual talk before you @ me.)
The main points are:
Blame is a specific moral judgement with a cognitive and social nature.
We need to know who did things so we can learn from those people about what they did and what they knew, observed, believed, expected, and understood at the time.
When we don't understand blame, we often use ineffective or even counterproductive strategies to cope with it (like not talking about who did things).
The key question, then, is: How can we know who did stuff without punishing the people who did the stuff so that we can learn more from incidents?
Like anger, blame is a feeling. It arises in our minds when we see someone do something "bad". Because blame simply arises in our minds, there's no point in telling people not to blame. Instead, we should learn how to cope with blame when it does arise. To paraphrase Mr. Rogers, "What do you do with the blame that you feel?"
Unlike anger, blame also has a deliberative or "rational" (I do not like this word) component. This deliberative component can condition our intuitive, affective blaming evaluations and can sometimes mitigate them.
Blame actually serves a useful and even necessary adaptive function in human society: it regulates behaviors that violate social norms. Human society could not function without this social regulation.
People arrive at better blaming judgements when they have access to cognitive resources like time, freedom from pressure and coercion, and emotional and psychological support.
The severity of blaming judgements is heavily influenced not only by outcome (outcome bias) but also by prior mental states, like how we feel about the person in question or how we feel about blame and culpability in general.
Blame can lead to sanctions (which include but are not limited to punishment) but these sanctions are often finely tuned and highly adaptive. In fact, over-sanction (e.g., punishing people who don't deserve it or punishments that "don't fit the crime") is remarkable because it is relatively rare and because this behavior itself violates strongly held social norms.
It is socially unacceptable to blame and sanction someone without warrant: the sufficient justification one must be able to provide on demand for their blaming judgement. When you see someone engaging in damaging or unproductive blame, you can ask then to provide this warrant. If you don't find the warrant sufficient, you can say so.
Sanctions can take a variety of forms and can be analyzed in terms of their intensity and the extent to which the sanction was directed towards the norm violator. For example, a finding fault sanction (e.g., "it's wrong to punch people in the face") is less intense than vilification and less directed toward the violator than an admonishment.
Sanctions that are carefully tuned to fit the behavior are an effective way to regulate behavior. The process by which we decide to sanction someone for their behavior is blame.
Blaming behaviors, like all other social behaviors, are subject to social norms. And blame, when applied with compassion and empathy in the form of appropriate sanctions, is the best tool we have to regulate behavior and enforce (and construct!) social norms.
Blame can be "irrational" (again, I do not like this word, but that's what the paper called it) in that blame can be accompanied not only by a range of hostile first-order emotions but also a second-order attitude of entitlement to those feelings. This accounts for some of the toxic and destructive effects of blame even when it is not accompanied by over-sanction.
Instead of trying to "be blameless", which defies both human nature and social conditioning, we should strive to be blame aware: we should acknowledge that blame happens and work together to find compassionate ways to cope with it when it does so that we can reduce the damage done by over-sanction and irrational blame.
We can do this by creating an environment where people have more access to the cognitive resources they need to make better blaming judgements, and where their prior mental states make them predisposed to blame less severely or not at all. One effective way to do the latter as a facilitator is with a preamble or stage-setting exercise like the one suggested in the Etsy Debrief Facilitation Guide. For example, the Agile Prime Directive says this:
Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.
Ok, now how about those references. There are a bunch of other ideas from other references that informed the talk (and I'd be happy to direct you to them if you have anything in particular you would like to learn more about) but these are the ones I cited specifically.
Many of these references can be found in a book called An Atlas of Moral Psychology.
Allspaw, John. "Blameless postmortems and a just culture." (2012). [HTML]
Graham, Jesse, et al. "Moral Foundations Theory: On the advantages of moral pluralism over moral monism." Gray K 9 (2016) [PDF].
Gray, Kurt, Chelsea Schein, and Adrian F. Ward. "The myth of harmless wrongs in moral cognition: Automatic dyadic completion from sin to suffering." Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 143.4 (2014): 1600. [PDF]
Killen, Melanie, and Audun Dahl. "Moral judgment: Reflective, interactive, spontaneous, challenging, and always evolving." (2016). [PDF]
Knobe, Joshua. "There is no important distinction between moral and nonmoral cognition", Atlas of Moral Psychology (2018): 556.
Laham, Simon M., and Justin J. Kelly. "Grounded Morality." Atlas of Moral Psychology (2018): 292.
Malle, Bertram F., Steve Guglielmo, and Andrew E. Monroe. "A theory of blame." Psychological Inquiry 25.2 (2014): 147-186.
Nadler, Janice, and Mary-Hunter McDonnell. "Moral character, motive, and the psychology of blame." Cornell L. Rev. 97 (2011): 255. [PDF]
Pickard, Hanna. "Irrational blame." Analysis 73.4 (2013): 613-626. [HTML]
Satir, Virginia, John Banmen, Jane Gerber, and Maria Gomori. The Satir Model: Family Therapy and Beyond. , 1991.
Satir, Virginia. The New Peoplemaking. Mountain View, Calif: Science and Behavior Books, 1988.
Schein, Chelsea, and Kurt Gray. "The prototype model of blame: Freeing moral cognition from linearity and little boxes." Psychological Inquiry 25.2 (2014): 236-240.
Spivey, Michael J., and Rick Dale. "Continuous dynamics in real-time cognition." Current Directions in Psychological Science 15.5 (2006): 207-211. [PDF]
Voiklis, John, et al. "Moral cognition and its basis in social cognition and social regulation." Atlas of Moral Psychology (2017): 108-120. [PDF]