Stopping the blame game in your organization


I had been doing some reading about failure and resilience and came across an article by Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School on learning from failure. It seems the executives she interviewed felt 2 to 5 % of the failures they see are actually blameworthy, i.e. the result of negligence or deliberate deviation, but around 70 to 90% are treated as such. I was shocked. I had no idea how endemic unjustified blaming could be. No wonder people don’t want to admit to any mistakes!

It almost makes you wonder why they do admit to their errors. In fact, Bin Zhao and Fernando Olivera looked into this and their observations can shed some light on why people do or don’t report their errors at work, for example, what would make a salesperson acknowledge that they had misquoted a price to a customer.

Once people spot their error, they will do what’s essentially a cost benefit assessment: what are the costs of telling (e.g. effort involved, repercussions, damage to your reputation) and what are the benefits (a sampling includes: acting in line with your self-concept, the learning opportunity, or fixing the situation for someone who was negatively impacted). The assessment will be influenced by their feelings as well as the context. Consider the difference between someone who is ashamed of their mistake and working in a high blame culture versus someone feeling guilty in a relatively safe environment. The first is more likely to hide their mistake whereas the second may be eager to tell and assuage their guilt.

The final step in the process is deciding what to do. Non-reporting can range from ignoring the mistake, handling it without telling, to hiding it. Reporting the error can involve blaming someone else, rationalizing what happened or providing a factual report. Blaming someone else may be particularly attractive when the error is visible, the cost of being responsible is high and the benefits low, e.g. your reputation will be damaged and you could lose out on a pending promotion.

But that is not all, in addition to this rather rational cost benefit analysis, you might point the finger simply because you witnessed someone else passing on the blame. It turns out, blaming others is contagious. Nathanael Fast and Larissa Tiedens did a series of experiments on this and found that if we observe someone blaming someone else for their mistake, we are more likely to blame others too (for our own, unrelated errors). Interestingly, this is not down to social learning or thinking that blaming others is socially acceptable. Rather, seeing someone put blame elsewhere triggers us to protect our self-image the way they are protecting theirs. The effect can be countered by bolstering self-image some other way so that blame is no longer needed.

What can you take from this if you want to see less of the blame game in your organization?

  1. If you want people to report their mistakes and do so without blaming others you have to make the benefits outweigh the costs. A person’s reputation should not only reflect their errors but also their honesty and willingness to take responsibility. Evaluate if there is any learning from the mistake and take that into account in performance reviews. Lower costs by removing any punitive consequences.
  2. Do not blame others for your own mistakes. Handle or fix the mistake yourself, or rationalize your role in it if you need to, but don’t spread the blame bug.
  3. When you see others playing the blame game take a moment for some positive self-affirmation (e.g. reflect on your values or strengths): this has been shown to bolster your self-image and provides a temporary "vaccination" to stop yourself from unwittingly passing on blame.

(Originally posted on LinkedIn 10 December, 2014)