When mistakes happen, it is easy to point out loudly and in great detail just whose mistake it is and how it is not at all our fault. Blaming someone or something else is a short term fix to keep the attention off of people who don’t want to appear foolish, or who don’t believe they contributed to the problem, or that it wasn’t their job, their responsibility or their fault. Not only do those beliefs not work, they ultimately tear your workplace apart.
We come by our blaming tendencies naturally. It’s in our DNA. The Blame Game is as old as mankind. Don’t take my word for it though. Open the Old Testament. Remember the story of Adam and Eve? Here are the only two people in the world. They live in a lush, rich garden. Life is perfect. They have all they can eat, no time clock to punch, no neighbours to fight with, no kids keeping them up all night. According to all we can tell from the biblical account, they’re living well and life is good. They have a perfect life – until of course the serpent comes along and tempts Eve into eating the apple. When Adam follows suit, it is Eve’s fault, not a weak will or miss-step by Adam at all.
This is the same dynamic we see in the work place. Blame is catching. When one person starts blaming others, those watching follow suit. Pretty soon everyone is blaming everyone else. And, ultimately, no one takes responsibility for anything.
So why do people blame others?
One reason is none of us like to be at fault or criticized, especially if it’s not clear that it’s our fault. It often feels safer to blame negative events on someone or something else so we can avoid being harmed, blamed or criticized again.
A second reason is that unexpected events are difficult to predict. And unpredictable things, or things we don’t understand can be scary or frustrating.
Whatever the reason for blame, experts know playing the blame game never works. Research shows that people who blame others for their mistakes lose status, learn less, and perform worse than those who own their mistakes and don’t rely on blame to avoid consequences.
How do we create a no blame zone?
- Create a culture of psychological safety. People who feel secure in their environment and don’t worry about losing face, losing their job, or losing credibility for failure don’t blame.
- Be a great role model. Blame is highly contagious and the urge to point the finger can feel overwhelming. Resist it. Create a culture of support and prevent a culture of blame.
- If you must place blame, blame constructively. Some mistakes require public acknowledgement and blame. Place the blame in a way that stresses learning from the mistake, not in a way that humiliates the person or people involved.
It’s never easy to acknowledge that you made a lapse in judgement or made a mistake, to admit culpability (e.g. you did not back up those important files). You may think it makes you look remarkably stupid. But in the long run, being able to say, “Yes, I made a mistake,” and then following up with a solution will be more productive and instill more confidence than if you try to shift the blame or, even worse, ignore the problem.
Troy Media columnist Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications.