How to Stop Employees From Passing the Buck

Last Updated Apr 13, 2010 2:43 PM EDT

If you've got a blamer on your team, watch out. You probably already know that in addition to being annoying, your colleague wastes valuable time and has trouble learning from mistakes. But a recent study by USC's Marshall School of Business professor Nathanael Fast and Stanford business school professor Larissa Tiedens found that blame is also highly contagious. Exposure to a blamer makes the rest of the group likely to follow his or her lead. Fortunately, there's a way to keep finger pointing from spreading like swine flu among your staff. In one experiment subjects read a news story about California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's failure to pass four propositions in a special election that he called. Next, half the subjects read an article in which the Governor took full responsibility for the unsuccessful election. Later in the experiment, all participants wrote about one of their own failures and explained its cause. Those exposed to the article about the Governor-turned-blamer held others responsible for their disappointments. But the ones who read his mea culpa followed his lead and owned up to their blunders. The takeaway: watching others protect their egos creates a defensive chain reaction.

In another phase of the study, some subjects were asked to choose the value that was most important to them and write a paragraph about its significance -- an activity intended to bolster self-worth. The remaining subjects were tasked with selecting a value that was unimportant to them and writing a paragraph about why it might matter to someone else. All participants were then told to reflect on a personal failure, write it down, and explain why it happened. While there was no blaming among the group with the newly affirmed self-esteem, the others passed the buck.

Executive coach Barbara Roche has seen similar dynamics play out in her work with dysfunctional teams. Roche often uses the Appreciative Inquiry approach -- a process that builds organizations around what works, as opposed to fixing what doesn't. She gets team members talking about each other's unique strengths and attributes. Then she asks each to explain what they need to do their jobs. Significantly, she doesn't ask anyone to list what others lack -- a question that could lead to blaming. It's also important that the assessment of needs takes place after everyone has been reminded of their strengths.

To foster a culture where blame isn't welcome, begin with yourself. Acknowledge your mistakes publicly. Everyone makes them, and your team may as well learn from yours, as well as their own. Ban public blaming (if someone really screws up, discuss it with them privately). But compliment generously. These practices up the odds that your employees will feel safe enough to accept responsibility when things go wrong -- and productively move forward.

Finger pointing image courtesy of Flicker user !anaughty!, CC2.0