Nobody wins in the 'blame game'

Walk down the hall or into a meeting room right now and you’re bound to overhear an employee blaming someone (or something) else - whether it’s a coworker, a boss, a client, the weather or a bout of stomach flu – for his work falling short or a project hitting a snag. It’s most certainly not the fault of the person doing the finger pointing, and he’ll do everything in his power to convince you of that.

It’s called “passing the buck,” and in workplaces where this is the norm, it’s a huge drain on creativity and performance. Plus, it appears to be contagious.

In a study at Stanford University, researchers asked 100 participants to read a news clip outlining a politician’s failure, where one group’s article had the politician blaming special interest groups for the mishap and the other group’s article had the politician taking full ownership of the failure. Then, the participants were instructed to write about a failure of their own, and what they think caused it.

The results? Participants who read about the politician blaming others were twice as likely as the other participants to blame someone else for their own shortcomings.

Before this study, researchers had a good idea about who does the blaming, and why. Pessimists blame more than optimists (“The glass is half empty, and it’s your fault”) and narcissists are more likely to shirk responsibility for their mistakes (“I’m so great, I don’t mess up”). And the biggest reason we blame others? To protect our self-image.

Now researchers also know that finger-pointing is catchy, which is detrimental in any social setting, the workplace included. They know, too, that while a blamer is busily guarding her self-image by shining a spotlight on others, she’s paying a price.

"When an individual is always pointing to external reasons for your mistakes you won't learn from those mistakes, so it hinders your ability to learn and become more effective," said study team member Nathanael Fast, of the Department of Management and Organization at the University of Southern California.

So what can you do to keep your company from turning into a bunch of finger-pointing whiners who throw everyone else under the bus? It starts at the top.

"If you're a leader, don't blame other people, at least not publicly. You might want to offer praise in public, but if you have to blame someone, do it in private,” says Fast.

It’s a matter of accountability, too. By taking responsibility for their own mistakes, managers and leaders can serve as positive role models. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that you struggled with a particular aspect of a work project, or that you made an outright mistake – as long as you close the loop by fixing the problem, or seek the help you need to resolve the issue.

The real mistake is blaming others – and sending the message that it’s OK to do so.

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