What we can learn from Thailand’s ‘no blame’ culture in the wake of the Thai cave rescue

Last month’s amazing rescue of the Thai football team had us all gripped and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief when the boys were all safe.

Interestingly, initial reports in the UK press were much concerned with why the boys were in the cave, how they’d become trapped and to what extent coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, was responsible for getting them into this situation.  Yet the Thai press represented the story from a somewhat different perspective. There was a positive and hopeful focus on the dedicated co-ordination of the rescue effort and the notable expression from parents that there was ‘no blame’ towards the coach.  In fact, they wrote to him to that effect before the boys were successfully rescued.

The absence of a ‘blame culture’ in Thailand has been cited as the possible reason for the difference in approach.    Which got us thinking about whether there’s a parallel with organisational culture, particularly since we know the detrimental impact of ‘blame’ in the context of encouraging innovation.  How can we avoid a blame culture in favour of a more constructive learning focus and could this lead to more positive outcomes for organisational performance or business success?

How does ‘blame’ create barriers for Innovation?

  • Disengagement – this is a more likely threat in unhealthy environments where people fear blame or see a disproportionately negative focus on mistakes; where there is a sense that ‘fingers could be pointed’ punitively, employees are much less likely to take calculated risks or consider challenging the status quo for the benefit of innovation.
  • Business Cost – repeated errors because of misplaced focus on blame rather than problem solving not only impact productivity and motivation for innovation, but could also have financial implications in terms of wasted investment in fruitless projects.
  • Lack of Trust – where people fear blame or reprisal for mistakes, they may be less likely to share ideas or champion the ideas of others – a crucial element of innovation. Likewise, employees may be more reluctant to positively engage in finding solutions to address errors or prevent risk where they do not trust that they have the support of their colleagues or the organisation more generally – the impact can be significant, particularly when we consider highly regulated or safety conscious environments such as medicine or construction.

When we consider the harmful impact of the existence of ‘blame’ within an organisation, and recognise that innovation and creativity are now critical to an organisation’s ability to remain competitive, or even to survive during economic uncertainty, the value of working towards a ‘no-blame’ culture becomes clearer. And, perhaps, makes it interesting to consider the extent to which this mind-set had a positive influence on the Thai rescue effort, particularly given the obstacles they faced and the solutions required to ensure the safest and most positive outcome.

So, what does a ‘no-blame’ culture look like and how could the positive outcomes associated support innovation?

  • Solutions-Focused – cultures with this mind-set concentrate on the actions required to address mistakes and to move from the current to the desired position. A positive focus on learning to generate innovation and improvement is more likely to ensure action is taken responsively with less time wasted on seeking to attribute blame. In the case of the Thai rescue operation, the divers’ focus on problem-solving, re-evaluating and adapting along the way undoubtedly contributed to the successful conclusion.
  • Future-Focused – rather than preoccupation with the past, organisations that can balance prior learning with attention to the future vision i.e. ‘where do we need to get to, what does better look like?’ are more likely to create the constructive optimism beneficial for innovation. Looking again to the situation in Thailand, the boys’ parents’ attention to their future vision of a desired state (i.e. a successful rescue with children home safely) rather than the past (i.e. how and why they were in the cave) is what was captured in the Thai media.
  • Led by Example – leadership role modelling is crucial for encouraging the necessary behaviours for any culture change (people notice and seek to replicate positive behaviour), including those requiring innovation. Leaders should demonstrate what’s valued in the organisation including those behaviours conducive to innovation e.g. openness, agility etc.
  • Collaborative – underpinning successful innovation cultures are cohesive teams in which different skills and perspectives are combined, and multiple resources are integrated. However, this requires collaboration rather than separation and, as we noted, a fear of blame can create barriers for cooperation and teamwork. It is interesting to note how little focus there was on the input of specific individuals as part of the Thai rescue operation – with attention being given largely to the collaborative effort of the multiple agencies and individuals involved.
  • Recognition is Important – Having defined the metrics for the success, recognition for innovators or their collaboration on successful innovations signals this as behaviour that is valued by the organisation. Similarly, recognition of those behaviours that support a more open, collaborative, no-blame culture, helps to generate trust and promote engagement to make the cohesion required for innovation more accessible. And celebrating success is often cited as key to generating positive morale, something clearly evident in the Thai press and public recognition for both the challenge and success of the overall mission, despite the tragic loss of life for one former Thai Navy Seal.

Analise La-Band, Senior Consultant at WPG said: “It’s clear that the avoidance of blame can have positive implications for both business performance as well as employee engagement and well-being.  Provoking a shift in culture can take time as it requires a collective change in behaviour. This is where leadership is crucial for role modelling behaviours consistent with demonstrating trust, openness and learning – all these factors are important for organisations looking for a more innovative culture.”

At WPG our core values are around courage, innovation and learning.  We try to encourage our team to ‘seek forgiveness, not permission’ as we think this promotes a culture where innovation can happen more readily.

If you’d like to learn more about how to encourage innovation in your organisation then our blog “Five Top Tips for Harnessing Employee Innovation within your Workplace,” may be a good starting point.  Or feel free to get in touch if you’d like to discuss how your organisation can make the journey towards a more innovative culture.