Taking a look at the blame game in the workplace
Prime the pump
April 18, 2023

Taking a look at the blame game in the workplace

“There was an issue at work yesterday involving me,” a young professional said to his father.

His father waited patiently to hear… “In summary, something was left undone that I passed to my manager for her to do and I took the rap for her when the Managing Director questioned me about the incomplete task.”

“How did the Managing Director react?” His father asked.

“He told me that I messed things up.”

“You took the blame for your manager? Do you think she would have done that for you? I doubt she would have done that for you,” his father concluded.

As I listened to the dialogue, I thought to myself, how honourable of the young professional. I recalled being affiliated to an organization where the blame game was frequently played and, as a result, employees walked on eggshells. Managers were insecure, inactive, and timid. In the meantime, the Managing Director complained that they weren’t taking initiatives, that they weren’t proactive and lacked confidence. However, each time a decision was made that was considered unfavourable to the organization or not one that the Managing Director would have made, the decision makers were chastised and reprimanded for their poor decision. When something went wrong, the first order of business was to ascertain who was to blame. As you can imagine, no one took responsibility for their actions. Everyone wanted to escape the weight of the hammer coming down on them and so, they were quick to hammer someone else.

Meanwhile, no one focused on the solution and that fostered an environment of low self-esteem and disengagement.

Recently, I was invited to a meeting of an organization and as I sat in the business meeting, I was appalled at how professionals were berating other professionals for what they considered to be inaction. I sat there with an animated face and listened as the blame game played out. How could anyone think that’s okay I thought. Is this how these professionals deal with unproductivity or lack of pro-activeness at their workplace?

There are more effective ways of getting things done right than proving that someone is useless, incompetent or messed up. Nathanael J. Fast in an article titled “How to stop the blame game,” said “Playing the blame game never works. A deep set of research shows that people who blame others for their mistakes lose status, learn less, and perform worse relative to those who own up to their mistakes. Research also shows that the same applies for organizations. Groups and organizations with a rampant culture of blame have a serious disadvantage when it comes to creativity, learning, innovation, and productive risk-taking”.

According to Fast, findings offer another reason why: Blaming is contagious. A set of studies conducted in collaboration with Larissa Tiedens of the Stanford Graduate School of Business showed that merely being exposed to someone else making a blame attribution for a mistake was enough to cause people to turn around and blame others for completely unrelated failures. This is different from the “kick-the-dog” phenomenon, where a person is more likely to blame the person below them in the hierarchy when they, themselves, have been blamed by a higher-up. Instead, it appears that all you have to do to “catch” the blame virus is to be exposed to someone else passing the buck.

“When people face repercussions or unintended consequences after making a mistake, their fear may cause them to defend themselves by shifting the blame away from themselves and onto a scapegoat,” say Sabrina Romanoff, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University.

Join us next week as we touch on the “kick-the-dog” phenomenon and a few practice steps we can take to stop the blame game.

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