Not me, it’s him… The blame game

Some of you will be familiar with the game called ‘passing the ball’, it used to be a favorite at different family events during my childhood days, for those of you who are not familiar with the game, it goes like this; a group of people sit around in a circle and you pass a ball from one person to the other while music plays in the background. Whoever is left holding the ball when the music stops gets out of the game, and the last one standing is the winner. The focus throughout the game is to make sure you get the ball out of your hand as quick as possible, so that you are not the one holding it when the music stops.

A similar version of the game gets played out in corporate environment, the only difference is, it gets played not with a ball but with a real messy problem that no one wants to own up to. But the objective is the same, which is to pass the blame on to the next person as quickly as possible, so you are not the one to be out of the game. So the people who gets caught up in this game, knowingly or unknowingly triggers their natural defensive mechanism, and tries to find a person connected to the issue so that they can pass on the blame.

Blame game is almost unavoidable in corporate life, unless you are working with professionally mature people, who have the courage to stand up and accept their shortcomings no matter the consequences. But it’s not easy to find these people around, unless your company actively promotes a culture where people are allowed to make mistakes without fear of persecution as long as they learn from it. Most of the star corporations out there have this culture embedded in them which helps them to improve their workforce productivity, but there are many companies who still promote a culture of fear to drive the performance and only time can tell how long their strategy can last.

The management as the drivers of the company has a big role in promoting such culture by eliminating the fear of punishment for genuine mistakes. But, it doesn’t end with the management; every person in an organisation has the responsibility to play their part to ensure that they don’t promote or participate in the blame game. By pointing fingers at each other for a mistake in which you or your team may also be a part of, you are destroying the fabric of teamwork and motivation within your organisation. To have a healthy and productive office atmosphere, eradication of blame culture is not only essential but extremely important.

So how can we contribute?

Take accountability and own up to your part of the mistake  – Blame culture often flourishes when there is an ambiguity on who has committed the mistake or who played a bigger role in it. More often than not it’s a collective responsibility; the mistake may not have been committed by a single person, but could be a result of a process breakdown where the people involved in making sure the processes are followed may not have done their bit, which resulted in a mistake. So then the discussion starts as to whom along the process has a bigger responsibility over others for the error, which triggers the blame game. In such situations if you own up to your bit of the bargain it becomes easier to bring the other party to table. It also encourages others to own up to their bit as well, as it provides the comfort of shared responsibility than an individual responsibility. This is a good way to defuse tensions from the very beginning which will ultimately help to eliminate the tendency to blame each other.

Avoid pointing fingers  – Pointing out a mistake is different from pointing fingers. In the latter you are accusing a person for a mistake where as in the former you are highlighting the problem itself. When you blame a person for a mistake the person becomes defensive, and being defensive is a natural instinct when attacked. Once people go into defensive mode it’s very difficult to get anything out of a conversation with them. Then they approach the problem only from their angle, and never open up to the idea of looking at the issue from the other person’s perspective. So it basically means a partial or complete shutdown of information intake, whereby anything you say bounces back and never gets absorbed by the other person.

Try not to be emotional  – If you are getting blamed for something where you feel you are not at fault, it automatically brings out your emotions. As a result you become animated, your voice starts rising, and in extreme cases you may even forget your surroundings. When emotion takes over, rational thinking takes a back seat. And when that happens, there is no chance for a productive discussion; so keep your emotions out of the picture. It’s also important not to invoke an emotional approach in other person through the use of wrong words or accusations. As long as the discussions are kept within the rational boundaries, there is a higher chance to avoid the blame game and come to a collective solution to the issue.

Avoid talking behind someone’s back  – A common strategy people use in the blame game is to spread their version of the story among most number of people in hope to gather support in favor of their defense. It also helps to reassure themselves that they are right, all the while avoiding discussion directly with the people involved. This makes the situation even worse, and doesn’t help to find a solution to the issue. It’s always good to sit down with the other party (involved party) directly, to sort out the differences than to share your version with others.

Stay away from the witch-hunt – When an issue comes up, if the first thing that people around you looks for is the person responsible for it to punish, rather than working to solve the issue, then you are in an environment where Blame game is inevitable. Move away from looking for scape-goats on every issue, and approach it from a constructive and productive angle. If no one in your organization is allowed to make mistakes then your organization will never progress. Accepting this fact makes it easier for people to accept their mistakes and move forward, rather than getting stuck with the finger-pointing game. Having said that, it’s also important to keep in mind the quote from Paulo Coello “When you repeat a mistake, it is not a mistake anymore; it’s a decision”.