Stop the Toxic Blame Game

Last Updated Jun 10, 2011 3:43 PM EDT

A failure to understand the dynamics of blame and credit at work can and will derail your career. Don't take my word for it. Read the overwhelming proof in The Blame Game: How the Hidden Rules of Credit and Blame Determine Our Success or Failure (Free Press/Simon and Schuster 2011), a lean synthesis of how to manage the workplace toxin called blame. The book is authored by Ben Dattner, a New York based organizational psychologist.

Dattner argues a culture of blame does the following:

  • It derails careers. According to the Center for Creative Leadership, an inability to give proper credit and handle the powerful toxic issue of blaming others is a driving factor in careers going off track or off the cliff;
  • It wreaks havoc on your emotional state. Two psychiatrists at the University of Connecticut consolidated 22 studies on the impact of blaming others and found that when individuals blame others, in 77 percent of cases they suffer emotionally and physically;
  • It makes you inflexible. Noted psychiatrist George Vaillant showed that people who projected or blamed others for their misfortunes were less able to adjust and adapt to changing events;
  • It clouds your judgment. Numerous studies show Westerners consistently over credit themselves for everything from how much they have contributed to group efforts to their skill at public speaking. Business leaders and entrepreneurs often make poor decisions because they tend to blame outside forces when things go wrong, and assign too much credit to their own gifts when business is going well.
Hardwired to Blame, Grab Credit
Dattner argues that the tendency to "track credit and blame is hardwired by evolutionary psychology," as fear triggers people's unconscious to protect their status by shifting unwarranted attention from themselves to external threats. When these primal fears are stirred up, the parts of our brain that think and plan long-term tend to not work so well.

Dattner cites an executive client who was paralyzed with resentment about her boss not giving her more recognition and a better title. Dattner's client thought her boss was keeping too much credit for the work they did together and rarely offered public praise. Dattner helped her see that the boss' stingy feedback had more to do with his personality than his views of her performance, and that a raise in pay would do more to advance her longer-term career goals. Her boss agreed to the raise, and Dattner's client no longer worried so much about credit.

How to Break the Vicious Cycle
People who enjoy their job or who lead high performing teams and organizations have learned to how to foster collaboration and problem solving, without the finger-pointing.

To make this shift, the author suggests the following:

    1. Never start or spread rumors about blame;
    2. Deliberately share credit with difficult colleagues or direct reports--this reduces paranoia and fear. If necessary "overshare" credit to break a cycle of finger-pointing;
    3. Fight "attribution error" in evaluating whether a superior or peer is targeting you for blame or criticism--that is, separate the person from the job they are performing;
    4. Find out how others see you. Ask colleagues if they think you're assigning credit--or blame. Are you holding yourself to the same high standards you expect others to follow?
    5. Adapt BNET blogger Marshall Goldsmith's tactic of offering more "feed forward" than feedback when evaluating performance and direct reports--focus less on past behavior and more on suggestions direct reports should take for future action.
    6. Fight groupthink: when your team is going to make a decision, have team members reach independent decisions before convening to discuss or present those judgments to you. Assign devil's advocates for key decisions to make sure your team thoroughly considers alternative explanations.
    7. Get and keep people who don't throw others under the bus--pay attention to how job candidates discuss blame and credit in interviews and the hiring process;
    8. Reward direct reports who step up to take blame when merited, and show how they have learned for the future.
      What experiences have you had as a manager in dealing with the blame game? And how have you handled it?
      Herb Schaffner is president of Schaffner Media Partners, a consultancy specializing in business, finance, and public affairs publishing expertise, and is found on Facebook. He has been a publisher and editor-in-chief at McGraw-Hill, and a senior editor at HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter.
      Photo by Paul Schultz.
      • Herb Schaffner

        Herb Schaffner is the president of Schaffner Media Partners, which develops business book and media projects. He is the former Publisher of Business and Finance at McGraw-Hill Professional, and Senior Editor at HarperCollins/HarperBusiness. Books that Schaffner edited, developed, and supervised during his years in publishing won best book awards from The Economist, 800-CEO Read, BusinessWeek, The Financial Times/Goldman Sachs, Strategy+Business Magazine, and the Toronto Globe & Mail. He has acquired and edited dozens of bestselling books including Secrets of the Millionaire Mind, Always On, Make or Break, Freedom from Oil, and many others. During his career Schaffner also worked as director of speechwriting and public affairs to a governor, as a communications director at two universities, and for the highly influential Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, DC. He also coauthored leading reference works on labor and the workforce.