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Blame Game - Main

When you put a bunch of people together in one workplace, you’re going to see conflict at some point.

After conflict occurs, we often see people and teams playing the blame game.

That is, pointing fingers at other teams, arguing about who should have done what and when. While this is a natural reaction, it’s not helpful.

While it doesn’t feel nice to be blamed, it’s important to realise that the blame game is not helping you either, even if you’re not the one in the wrong!

Why Do People Play the Blame Game?

Blame is a natural defence mechanism.

When you blame people, you signal to others that you weren’t the one who stuffed up. This means you can hopefully escape attention as people instead look at those who did the wrong thing.

Sounds good, right? You’re just letting everyone else know who was wrong so they can be properly informed.

More importantly, you’re letting people know that it wasn’t your fault.

Interestingly, there is research on blame. Researcher Brenè Brown discusses what she has found in this short video.

The big takeaway for me comes from these lines:

“Blame is simply the discharging of discomfort and pain. It has an inverse relationship with accountability. Blaming is a way that we discharge anger.”

So there is a purpose for blame, and that is to discharge anger.

But is this really helping us?

Learn More:  Why Leaders Should Show Vulnerability at Work.

The Downsides of the Blame Game

It seems fairly obvious that blaming people isn’t a great thing to do. It sure doesn’t feel great when you are blamed by someone else.

But it still happens, because people are discharging anger, as we saw earlier in Brenè Brown’s quote.

Next I want to take a look at some of the issues with the blame game that you may not have considered.

1. Blame Reinforces a Fear of Failure

When you blame, you start to create a culture of fear and risk-avoidance.

When bullets are flying, people are going to duck.

So the more often you blame, the greater chance there is that people will learn to duck for cover and try to avoid it.

Obviously it’s not pleasant when people are scared of being blamed, because it can create anxiety.

Fear of Losing Your Job - Main

But an important side-effect of blame is that it means people are more tentative. They are scared to try new things, because if they go wrong, they’ll be blamed.

And let’s face it, when you try new things, there is a good chance that something might go wrong, because you’re in unfamiliar territory.

If you work in a place where people say “This is the way we’ve always done it”, there is a good chance that they’re not comfortable changing. And one of the reasons just might be that the blame game is in full effect.

Learn More:  Just Beyond Yourself: When to Push Out of Your Comfort Zone.

2. The Blame Game Reduces Accountability

Let’s reflect on Brown’s statement earlier, that “blaming has an inverse relationship with accountability”.

That is, the more people blame, the more likely they are to avoid accountability.

At first I was confused by this line, but on reflection I think it makes a lot of sense.

If I’m blaming everyone else, then I’m aware that I’m in a blaming environment.

And I know that when people take ownership for something and it happens to go wrong, they are blamed for it.

Which means I don’t want to take accountability for anything, because then I’m in the firing line if something bad should happen!

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How Failing to Take Accountability Can Hold You back

First, we should acknowledge that failing to take accountability is a defence mechanism.

It means that you’re less likely to be blamed, because you’re not taking ownership of anything.

So it may feel that you’re protected, when you blame others.

But let’s look at little closer at this.

When you fail to take accountability, you’ll also give up the opportunity to claim credit for what you’ve done.

This means you have less chance for others to positively recognise your contribution, which could have a knock-on impact on your career prospects and reputation within your organisation.

The Rise of the “Toxic” Finger-Pointing

Something I’ve noticed becoming more common recently is the rise of people labelling others as “toxic”.

Toxic leaders, toxic employees, toxic suppliers, you name it.

Lots of people are getting a kick out of calling other people toxic.

I wrote about this on social media recently, and someone commented to me that “You’ve probably never had a toxic boss before”.

This made me laugh because I’ve been writing about thoughtful leadership for 10 years now, mostly because of the bad leadership I was seeing and experiencing in workplaces.

Let go of the blame game to create psychological safety

The problem I have with the “toxic” blame game is that when we point blame at others, we completely take the focus off ourselves.

When we dismiss someone as a toxic leader or employee, we are essentially giving them zero credibility. We are saying that their opinion doesn’t matter, because they are broken individuals who have nothing to offer.

This means that we can let ourselves off the hook, because anything they say or do is lacking in credibility. 

Instead of focusing on where we may need to improve, or how our behaviour may be impacting the situation, we instead dismiss these concerns as a result of the toxic behaviour that the other person is displaying.

This means we stagnate. We play the victim, and say “woe is me”. It’s everybody else’s fault, but not our own.

I’m not saying we should blame ourselves for other people’s behaviour. But instead of dismissing people as toxic or incompetent, it’s worth looking at them as a whole person first.

Learn More:  Do You Have a Victim Leadership Mentality?

People Are Fallible, and So Are You!

Hands up if you’ve ever done some crappy leadership stuff in your career.

I’ve yelled at someone, criticised a colleague in front of their team and ignored team problems hoping they would go away.

Did I do these things often and intentionally?

No – I did them very rarely, and all in the moments where I was the most stressed.

People are fallible, imperfect organisms, and we are prone to bad behaviour if we aren’t careful.

There is much talk about “workplace psychopaths” who have hardwired genetic traits that make them more prone to displaying bad behaviour.

Although these types of people exist, they aren’t in the majority.

Which means when you see people showing “toxic” behaviour, there is a good chance that they:

  • Aren’t handling the stress of their role
  • Are struggling with events going on in their life, such as family or financial issues
  • Feel insecure in their leadership role
  • Lack awareness of how their behaviour is impacting others, or holding themselves back; or
  • Lack the skills and knowledge to lead effectively.

With this in mind, and acknowledging that you yourself may also have shown “toxic” behaviour in the past, the blame game doesn’t make a lot of sense does it?

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #209: How to Build Empathy Using the Iceberg Model.

The Iceberg Sketch

Instead of the Blame Game, Try This

It’s worth remembering also that when we blame, others are watching us do it.

Our teams and colleagues are seeing our behaviour, and we’re role modelling it. Is this the type of thing we want to be known for?

But, it’s not that simple. I find it very easy to fall into the blame game trap as an instinctive, natural response.

Instead, let’s try something different:

1. Acknowledge the hurt. It’s natural to feel pain and discomfort when something goes wrong, or when someone treats you badly. Notice it and realise that it’s a normal way to feel. It’s what we do with this feeling that matters.

2. Ask yourself: what part did I play in this situation? The idea here is not to take ownership of everybody else’s wrongdoing. The idea is to reflect on how you may have contributed.

Often we have a part to play in our interactions with others. For example, if I complain about team members interrupting me too often, it’s possibly because I have not made the effort to set clear boundaries with them.

Or when my boss continues to treat me badly, maybe it’s time for a difficult conversation that I have been putting off. I’m not taking ownership of what my boss does, but I need to own what I do next.

3. Make a decision about the next step. Is there an action you could take to improve the situation, or how you feel about it?

You’re taking accountability for your own part here, not everybody else’s. Remember that actions to “punish” others fall into the blame game category.

It’s easy to fall into the blame game trap. But as thoughtful leaders, we can slow down, reflect, and stop ourselves from engaging in that unproductive behaviour.

Your team might just follow your lead and start taking accountability.

Do you struggle with the blame game? How have you coped with it at work? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!


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