Oswald Letter

6 important ways to avoid playing the blame game

Blameby Dan Oswald

When the going gets tough, how long does it take for someone to ask, “Who’s to blame for this mess?” Unfortunately, the answer is not very long. We live in a world in which everyone wants to place blame.

You don’t have to look any further than the Great Recession. Republicans blamed Democrats. Democrats blamed Republicans. The current president blamed the previous president. Congress blamed the bankers. The bankers blamed Congress. The American people blamed them all. NO ONE took responsibility. EVERYONE pointed a finger at someone else.

I often wonder how things would have been different had one of the presidents of our past been in office when this occurred. Abraham Lincoln once said, “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” Would he have faced the problem head-on and accepted responsibility instead of placing blame? Or what about Harry S. Truman, who famously said, “The buck stops here!” Would he have stopped the finger-pointing and focused on getting to the root of the problem instead of assigning blame?

According to a Harvard Business Review article written by Nathanael J. Fast, “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.”

This explains a lot when it comes to politics in America. When was the last time you heard a politician accept responsibility for something? Now, when was the last time you heard a politician blame others for a mistake. No wonder just 14 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing. They spend all their time blaming others for the mistakes that are made.

So what about your organization? Your team? You? Do you see the blame game at work in your company? Do you watch your team dissolve into a bunch of finger-pointing when something goes awry? And are you quick to blame others when a mistake is made?

When things are working, really humming along, who’s responsible? When they’re not, does the answer change? So often we see people step forward to accept the credit when things go well, but does the same person accept the blame when the results are poor?

It’s often said that the first step in solving a problem is to admit that you have one. Notice it doesn’t say the first step in solving a problem is to blame someone else for it.

Things are bound to go wrong sometimes. Mistakes are going to be made; problems are going to arise. And in a workplace where we often find ourselves leading a team, it’s crucial to help the team members avoid pointing fingers. Finger-pointing is defined as “the act of blaming someone for a problem instead of trying to fix or solve it.” By definition, finger-pointers do not try to fix or solve the problem—they just blame others.

So how do you avoid the blame game with the team you lead? Here are a few ideas:

  1. At the first sign that there’s a problem, set up ground rules for positive, productive TEAM discussions. Explain that you’re not looking to assign blame and that any finger-pointing is forbidden.
  2. Focus on PRODUCTIVE dialogue, and eliminate accusatory or negative language.
  3. Get the team to focus on determining WHAT—not WHO—caused the problem.
  4. Take an approach that centers around FIXING the problem instead of assigning blame for its occurrence.
  5. Talk about what can be LEARNED from the problem.
  6. Make sure you discuss how the team can AVOID a repeat of the problem.

As the leader, it’s your responsibility to make sure your team doesn’t play the blame game. The best way to do that is to avoid falling into that trap yourself. The second is to set up clear ground rules for problem solving that center around fixing the problem instead of assigning blame. It’s your job to create a culture in which people take responsibility instead of placing blame. It starts with you sharing the credit when things go right and taking responsibility when they don’t.