“Wrong Until Right” Does NOT Mean “Guilty Until Proven Innocent”

In fact, the two viewpoints should be considered opposites

Think about the last few instances when something went wrong that directly involved others on your team or in your business, not you as a leader …

"Wrong Until Right" or "Guilty Until Innocent" - Mike Russell

What did you do?  Did you try to find out who was responsible?  Did you assume control and try to correct the situation?  Something else?

The first two responses are not uncommon.  Unfortunately, those two responses can lead to lower performance and poorer results over time, especially in an environment of relentless change.  Let’s look at why.

The first response of “who is to blame?” assumes the person(s) involved are the reason for the problem.  This viewpoint starts from a “guilty until proven innocent” mindset.  The person is “guilty” – the cause of the problem – until proven otherwise.  And, once the guilty party or parties are found, correction or punishment of some kind is meted out and then the incident is considered closed.  The cause of the problem – the person – is assumed “fixed” so the problem should not recur.

The problem will likely, however, recur.  Searching for someone to blame begins with a key assumption:  that a person is to blame.  If a person is to blame, then all the leader needs to do is to find that person in order to “fix” the problem.  If a person is NOT to blame or only partially a cause, then the problem will not be fixed, and the problem will recur.

Assuming that someone is the source of the problem is an obstacle to achieving high performance.  Work, or most anything in life, is a combination of people and their environment – the processes, tools, policies, physical environment, etc. that surrounds each person.  While one or more persons could be to blame, it is also possible that the environment is to blame, at least in part if not in whole.  In other words, something rather than someone could be the primary cause.

A mindset that includes the environment as a potential cause does not automatically excuse human error.  However, that mindset is far more powerful to achieving high performance for at least three major reasons, as it:

  1. Addresses root cause.
  2. Respects people.
  3. Enables “Wrong Until Right” implementation.

First, an open mindset addresses root cause.  By automatically taking the path of searching for someone to blame, you may completely miss the real reason for the problem – the root cause.  And, if you do not address the root cause, the problem will likely recur.

Not addressing root cause means never getting out of the performance rut caused by recurring problems.  It also means that a primary source of continuous improvement – the workers themselves – will never be willingly engaged in improvement.  Instead, by automatically blaming workers, leaders encourage workers to continue doing things the same way so the workers can get really good at making no errors or making missteps.

An open mindset searches for root cause rather than seeking to blame.

Second, an open mindset respects people.  If leaders have a “guilty until proven innocent” mindset toward people, how do you think people will behave?  Have you ever been in that situation?

In a work environment where leadership quickly seeks to assign personal blame, workers will work in a way that minimizes the risk of doing something wrong … usually meaning working slower and very methodically. They will also try to keep a low profile and take no (or as few) risks as possible, including not volunteering or trying anything “new” unless forced to do so.  This means any kind of change or innovation will be very difficult and prolonged … not exactly the type of situation that enables speed or breeds market responsiveness and adaptability.

Furthermore, a “guilty until proven innocent” mindset breeds an “everyone for themselves” mentality.  If something goes wrong and the search for someone to blame begins, a coping tactic is to deflect blame by pinning it on someone else.  This breeds an environment of low, if any, trust.  Without trust, effective teaming is virtually impossible.  Disrespect becomes rampant among workers after leaders disrespect workers.

Third, an open mindset enables “Wrong until Right.”  A Wrong until Right approach assumes that there will be problems and “misses” as we cannot predict the exact “right” path toward greater success.  We must make “good” errors in order to succeed.  To take that approach, though, means workers should not fear mistakes from trying a new path.  For that to happen, they need some measure of psychological safety.  That safety net will be removed by a “guilty until proven innocent” mindset.

You can see how finding someone to blame as the initial response to a problem can lead to lower performance, lower adaptability, and less innovation.  In the next insight, we will look at the second common response:  the leader taking back control from workers and personally trying to “fix” the problem.


  • Find one way to foster a “Wrong Until Right” mindset instead of “guilty until proven innocent” mindset and put it into action for the next five work days.
  • After the five days, help team members recognize the issues and do the same.


By Mike Russell