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Blame Culture

August 5, 2010

Her’s another Career Advantage post. It’s about the tendency in the Middle East to find someone to blame when things go wrong as a first reaction, rather than to fix things and then examine how things went wrong. Not exclusive to the Middle East, of course, but in an authoritarian work culture, fear and willingness to blame others for mistakes tend to be pervasive.

Many thanks to Tahir Shah for his permission to reproduce the story. Here’s the piece:

“Last week I was having dinner with a friend from one of the GCC countries. As is usually the case with this particular friend, we spent a couple of hours solving the problems of the world, and the Middle East in particular. We talked about the huge potential within the people of the GCC, and the obstacles to realizing that potential. The usual subjects came up: the education system, the employment of women, the gap between planning and implementation.

Then my friend came up with this observation: “The number one problem that is holding back our people is the fear of being punished for making a mistake”. How right he is, and not just in the GCC!

It happens that I’m currently re-reading Tahir Shah’s wonderful book about the storytellers of Morocco, “In Arabian Nights”. Anyone coming to the Middle East who wants to understand the culture of the region beyond the superficial etiquette should include Tahir’s book on their reading list.

One of the stories he tells is “The Tale of Melon City”:

“Once upon a time the ruler of a distant land decided to build a magnificent triumphal arch, so that he could ride under it endlessly with great pomp and ceremony. He gave instructions for the arch’s design, and its construction began. The masons toiled day and night until the great arch was at last ready.

The king had a fabulous procession assembled of courtiers and royal guards, all dressed in their finest costumes. He took his position at the head and the procession moved off. But as the king went through the great arch, his royal crown was knocked off.

Infuriated, he ordered the master builder to be hanged at once. A gallows was constructed in the main square, and the chief builder was led towards it. But as he climbed the steps of the scaffold, he called out that the fault was not with him, but with the men who had heaved the blocks into place. They, in turn, put the blame on the masons who had cut the blocks of stone. The king had the masons brought to the palace. He ordered them to explain themselves on pain of death. The masons insisted that the fault lay at the hands of the architect whose plans they had followed.
The architect was summoned. He revealed to the court that he was not to blame, for he had only followed the plans drawn out by the order of the king. Unsure who to execute, the king summoned the wisest of his advisors, who was very old indeed. The situation was explained to him. Just before he was about to give his solution, he expired.

The chief judge was called. He decreed that the arch itself should be hanged. But because the upper portion had touched the royal hand, it was exempted. So a hangman’s noose was brought to the lower portion, for it to be punished on behalf of the entire arch. The executioner tried to attach his noose to the arch, but realized it was far too short. The judge called the ropemaker, but he stated that it was the fault of the scaffold, for being too short.

Presiding over the confusion, the king saw the impatience of the crowd. ‘They want to hang someone,’ he said weakly. ‘We must find someone who will fit the gallows.’

Every man, woman and child in the kingdom was measured by a panel of experts. Even the king’s height was measured. By a strange coincidence, the monarch himself was found to be the perfect height for the scaffold. Victim procured, the crowd calmed down. The king was led up the steps, had the noose slipped round his neck and was hanged.

According to the kingdom’s custom, the next stranger who ventured through the city gates could decide who would be the next monarch. The courtiers ran to the city gate and waited for a stranger to arrive. They waited and waited. Then they saw a man in the distance. He was riding a donkey backwards. As soon as the animal stepped through the great city gate, the prime minister ran up and asked him to choose the next king. The man, who was a travelling idiot, said ‘A melon.’ He said this because he always said ‘A melon’ to anything that was asked of him. For he liked to eat melons very much.

And so it came about that a melon was crowned the king.

These events happened long, long ago. A melon is still the king of the country and, when strangers ask why a melon is a ruler, they say it’s because of tradition, that the king prefers to be a melon and that they as humble servants have no power to change his mind.”

I leave you to draw your own conclusions from the story. But in my time in the Middle East, I have seen people petrified in fear of their bosses, and afraid to take even the most simple and inconsequential decisions. And a culture in which mistakes are not tolerated is one in which innovation cannot flourish, because true innovators take risks and make mistakes.
Of course, there are mistakes and mistakes, and different forms of punishment. Among those in lowly and middle ranking positions within the great bureaucracies of the region, the fear is of loss of job and livelihood. If you are from Egypt or India, for example, the economic consequences of losing your job and having to return home are massive. If you can get a job at all in your home country, it’s unlikely that you will equal the standard of living you enjoy in, say, Saudi Arabia or the UAE. So you do everything you can to resist change that will threaten your job security, and the tools of that passive resistance are to keep your head down, cling to the status quo and tell those higher in the hierarchy what they want to hear.

If you are among the elite, there are different drivers. You may not risk unemployment, especially if you are the owner of a business or among the governing class. But you do risk loss of respect or personal humiliation of something goes wrong. And many people would prefer to lose money than face. So you do your best to cover up mistakes by denying that they ever happened and reinventing history. What you learn from the experience is not how to get things right next time, but never to put yourself in the same position again.

In case you might think I’m unfairly singling out the Middle East as a prime upholder of blame culture, I would point out that the concept of “never explain, never apologize” first reared its ugly head through the words of John Wayne in the 1948 movie Tie A Yellow Ribbon, in which he counsels a junior officer facing an Indian attack: “Never apologize, son. It’s a sign of weakness.”

And in my own life, I’ll always remember one of my daughters at an early age playing in the kitchen. From another room, I heard the sound of breaking crockery, and rushed in to investigate. I found my daughter standing in the wreckage of a shattered mug. She turned round and said “you made me do it, Daddy!”

In these fraught times, perhaps we could all benefit from prizing two great tenets of Islam – humility and forgiveness.

Steve Royston
June 2010″

Originally published in

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