Stop Playing "The Blame Game"
Finding Solutions Rather Than Finding Fault
Imagine this scenario: you and your team spend weeks putting together a presentation to bring in a big new client for your company. But the presentation doesn't go well, and the potential client walks away.
A few days later, you and your team answer questions from senior-level management – and the blame begins. It starts with "Well, this presentation topic wasn't MY idea," and it quickly moves on to "I think Susan should have organized the slides better." Before you know it, an hour has gone by – and the team is still going in circles, trying to figure out who's at fault, and why.
Have you ever played "the blame game"? It's all too common in the workplace. While it's important to look at – and learn from – mistakes, it's also critical that we don't get caught up in whose fault it is. Sorting through a messy situation should always come first. Once you deal with the situation, then you can begin the process of figuring out what went wrong. Pointing the finger of blame is rarely constructive.
In the above scenario, wouldn't it have been much better for the team to sit down and discuss what happened? They could have figured out what the client really wanted, what the team did well, and what the team didn't do well. And they could have learned from the situation, instead of spending all their time and energy blaming someone for what went wrong.
We'll show you why playing the blame game doesn't help, how to identify when you or your team is playing the game, and how to move on and learn from the situation.
The Blame Game
Pointing the finger of blame is usually easy. Why? Because it's natural to want to defend ourselves. And while the blame game often involves pointing fingers at many different people, it's easy to start scapegoating – putting all the blame on one person or group, when the failure really happened somewhere else, or when the problem has many different sources. People may start scapegoating when they don't want to take responsibility for a mistake or action, or when they want to move attention away from themselves.
Scapegoating can have many negative effects. The most damaging are the humiliation, criticism, and loss of self-esteem felt by the victim. Scapegoating can also damage the integrity of other team members who witness it, especially if they do nothing to stop it.
And what happens to the people who start the scapegoating in the first place? When nothing is done to stop their behavior, they may think it's acceptable – and they're likely to do it again.
And remember, it's possible that, in the end, no one is at fault. After all: that potential client could choose only one supplier.
What to Look For
Most of us don't like to look bad, so it's understandable to want to move the focus – and blame – onto someone else. And we often aren't aware of the actions and words that lead us to blame others, so it's especially important to step back to see things clearly.
It's also important to learn how to identify when blame is, or soon will be, misplaced – so you can stop it from getting worse. When the team starts to point fingers, people quickly become defensive and angry.
Be sure to watch out for these things:
- People avoid or exclude one or two team members. (The excluded people are often weaker than the others, either in character or rank – and they'll probably be absent from the discussion.)
- Team members find fault within the group ("Jack was supposed to check those figures before the presentation").
- People deny responsibility ("I didn't do that part of the project" or "No one showed that to me").
- People make no positive comments about the issue. Instead, they focus completely on the negative.
How to Stop It
When a team starts playing "the blame game," things can get out of control. The team leader needs to step in and put everything into perspective. Stop and think about this: Does it REALLY matter who is at fault? Is all this blame going to solve the problem?
Usually the answer is no. So, everyone's goal should be to assess where they are right now, and determine what they can do to fix the current problem. Pointing fingers or finding a scapegoat does nothing but lower morale and waste valuable time.
However, it's important for the team to understand what's happening. Getting them back on track is only part of your job. Yes, they need to find a solution, but they also need to be aware of how they were focusing on blame and fault.
Your role as a leader is to address these problems and make changes so the problems don't keep happening.
Try these tips:
- Look at the facts. What really happened here?
- Discuss the situation openly with your team. If one person began the process of assigning blame, then ask why he or she did so.
- Start the discussion with "We are where we are. Where do we go from here?" Focus on things the team can do to correct the situation, or at least learn from it, rather than try to re-live the past. You can affect the future, but you can't change the past.
- Instead of blaming people, focus on processes. Ask everyone for suggestions about improving the process so this situation doesn't happen again.
- Never overly protect any one team member. If you do, you can unwittingly separate that person from the group – and turn him or her into a target if things go wrong in the future.
Learning From Mistakes
How do you and your team move on after a bad session of the blame game? Well, it's not always easy. Feelings are hurt, and sometimes relationships are damaged. The finger pointers can also feel guilt, shame, and embarrassment for the way they acted.
So, how do you bring people back together?
- Keep an open environment – It can be painful at first, but talk about the situation. Then you can slowly start to heal the wounds.
- Apologize – Even if you weren't the one pointing fingers, apologize to the victim, and emphasize that it won't happen again. If you can, get the people who did place blame to say they're sorry. Also, watch for other signs of stress in the victim. If the situation was particularly bad, you may need to help him or her fully recover.
- Talk to the team – Make sure they understand what they did, why it was wrong, and why they can never do it again. Stress that this behavior will not be tolerated. If it happens again, there will be consequences.
- Learn from your mistakes – Perhaps you didn't pay close enough attention, which allowed this situation to happen the way it did? Or perhaps there was a problem with team dynamics, which contributed to all the blame? Take the time to analyze the situation once it's over. This can help you spot areas where you might have stopped it earlier. It can also help you fix the problem, to ensure that it doesn't happen again.
In some situations, someone may actually be to blame, perhaps through sloppiness, lack of effort, or lack of attention to detail. While you need to make sure that people don't play the blame game, you also need to ensure that people are fairly held accountable for their actions.
Almost everyone has participated in the blame game at one point or another, but it's important to realize that pointing fingers isn't productive. Learn how to recognize signs that your team is starting to do this, so you can stop the game early on. And it's just as important to show people what's happening. Make sure they clearly see what they're doing, and what the consequences will be if they continue.
After it's over, discuss the situation, and be willing to learn from your mistakes. Make sure apologies are given where appropriate. It might not be easy to heal the wounds, but by keeping an open environment and not pretending it didn't happen, there's a good chance that things will improve.