Stop Playing the "Blame Game"
Finding Solutions, Not Fault
Imagine you're heading up an important project. The deadline is looming, but the work is going to be delayed and your boss wants to know why.
You and your team are asked to explain yourselves and, before you know it, the "blame game" begins. The discussion goes round in circles as you try to figure out who's at fault, and why.
Wasting time pointing fingers, rather than looking for solutions, is a common occurrence but it's far from constructive.
In this article, we explore what the blame game is, how to stop it once it's started, and how you can avoid it in the first place.
What Is the Blame Game?
When something goes wrong and we feel threatened, it's natural to want to defend ourselves against any repercussions. We might find ourselves scapegoating or trying to shift the blame elsewhere.
We may try to distance ourselves from a problem, fearing that taking responsibility for errors or mistakes could harm our careers or make us look bad.
But this approach doesn't solve anything. Shifting the blame won't help you to meet that deadline, and it doesn't fix the problem that caused the delay.
Sometimes it's all too obvious when a team is playing a blame game. But it can happen in more subtle ways, too.
Here are some warning signs to watch out for:
- Exclusion: one or two people in the team are regularly excluded or marginalized. They may be "weaker" than the others (either in character or position), or absent from the discussion.
- "Finger pointing": team members find fault within the group. For example, "Jack was supposed to check those figures before the presentation."
- Denial: people deny responsibility or come up with excuses. They may make comments such as, "That's nothing to do with me, no one showed that information to me!"
- Negativity: no solution is identified to fix the issue at hand. Instead, people become fixated on finding fault. They struggle to move forward and only focus on the negative.
The Impact of Blame
Blaming others can have a detrimental effect on morale and performance. Team members may feel belittled or humiliated if they're pinpointed for blame – especially if it's not their fault. (Our article, Dealing With Unfair Criticism, offers advice on how to respond if you're singled out in this way.)
A culture of blame may also lead to individuals or teams being scapegoated when the real problem may lie elsewhere, or have a number of causes. It's easier to blame someone in another department or building than it is to point the finger at someone you sit with every day.
Over time, this type of scapegoating may even perpetuate bias or prejudice, or lead to accusations of discrimination. Also, it can damage the integrity of other team members who witness it, especially if they do nothing to stop it.
"Passing the buck" can deplete trust with customers and suppliers, and give your organization a bad name. Conversations along the lines of, "Well, that's the finance team's fault, not ours, so I can't help you" can make the whole company seem incompetent.
Blame can also stunt creativity and innovation within your organization – if people are afraid to try new things in case they don't work out, this can reduce team and company performance in the longer term.
Finally, some individuals may be prone to accepting blame where it is not warranted. A protective manager, for example, may "take the rap" for someone else's mistake. Or, an individual who's highly self-critical may view everything as their fault, even when it isn't.
Avoiding the blame game doesn't mean "letting things slide" or hoping that a situation will resolve itself. For example, if problems are caused by an individual's sloppy work, lack of effort, or insufficient attention to detail, it's important to address them in the appropriate way. Read our article, Dealing With Poor Performance, to learn more about this.
Failure to tackle issues like these could cause resentment in the rest of the team, allow the same problem to occur again, or mean that other people have to compensate for their colleague's shortcomings.
How to Avoid the Blame Game
To prevent a culture of blame, it's important to set clear expectations and boundaries for your team.
The following actions can help you to avoid the situation arising in the first place:
- Establish clear responsibilities and accountability. When people know exactly what their responsibilities are, it's harder to blame others when things go awry, and it's less likely to go wrong in the first place.
By encouraging personal accountability, and not micromanaging, your team members will retain a sense of ownership over their tasks. You could even consider drawing up a team charter that sets out everyone's expectations and objectives in writing.
Foster openness. An open and collaborative team will be better equipped to deal with potential problems before they get out of hand. Ask for regular input from your team at meetings (or individually, for people who are less comfortable speaking up in groups).
Watch out for groupthink, where people become wary of raising difficult questions for fear of upsetting the status quo.
Nurture your emotional intelligence and empathy. Even if a colleague is genuinely at fault, there may be other factors to consider. Perhaps they are overstretched, or a family emergency led them to overlook something important.
Aim to offer support instead of criticism. If a team member makes a mistake or fails to deliver on a task, they may require coaching, mentoring or training on a specific skill.
In some organizations, avoiding the blame game may require a significant cultural shift. You may not be able to achieve this on your own, but taking small steps to reduce your own tendency to blame, and encouraging others to do the same, can help to drive change.
Changing the Conversation
When team members start to throw blame at one another, things can get out of control. Feelings can be hurt, and relationships can be damaged. So how can you stop a blame game once it's started?
The following steps can help you to bring the team back together and steer the discussion in a more productive direction:
1. Reframe the Situation
Depersonalize the problem and ask, "Where do we go from here?" Focus on actions that the team can take to remedy the situation, rather than analyzing who was at fault. Also, show them how it can be an opportunity to learn and grow.
If someone has been blamed unfairly, try to get the person or people responsible to apologize. If this isn't possible, you can say sorry on their behalf.
If you are responsible for unfair blame, the best thing to do is to recognize it and make amends by apologizing. Watch for signs of anger or stress, and offer additional support in private if necessary.
3. Talk to the Team
Help your team members to understand why blame is counterproductive, and how it can be avoided in the future. (For more on this, see How to Avoid the Blame Game, above.)
4. Learn From Your Mistakes
Ask the team, "What can we learn from this?" You might identify a breakdown in communication, for example. Focus on processes: explore how you can improve them, and how you can apply these changes to prevent similar issues cropping up in the future.
When problems arise, playing the "blame game" can cause upset, waste time, and damage team cohesion – and it won't resolve the issue or prevent the error from happening again.
A better approach is to depersonalize the situation, focus on finding the root cause of the problem, and explore what you can learn from your mistakes.
To avoid a culture of blame arising in your team, set clear expectations, encourage personal accountability, and discuss potential problems openly. Show empathy when errors are made, and provide training and coaching where necessary.