The Blame Game

No one likes to be blamed, so why do we blame each other in the first place? What place does it have in our relationships, and how does it affect our problem-solving abilities? A personal experience with customer disservice to highlight our attraction to assigning blame and how it delays us from reaching solutions.

Not long ago, I took my dog to the boarding kennel as I was leaving for a business trip. Usually she stays at home, but this time my husband was going to be out of town, too.

“Can I help you?” the receptionist asked. “I’m here to drop Pudge off for boarding,” I replied, expecting I’d spend minutes to sign the papers, give Pudge a goodbye pat, and head to the airport.

The receptionist pulled up a computer screen and examined it. Then she looked a paper file. “You’re not supposed to be here today. Your reservation is for next week on the 28th,” she declared.

Oh, crap, I thought. This could be a real problem. The first thing to do is determine whether they can fit her in. If not, I need to start making phone calls right away.

“Oh, dear,” I said out loud. “That’s odd. I was sure I made the reservation for today. Is there room to board Pudge for next three days?”

“You’re wrong,” the receptionist asserted. “Your reservation is for the 28th.”

Let’s skip the fact that this exchange is not a stellar example of customer service. What was really interesting to me was that the receptionist insisted on telling me I was wrong, even in the face of the evidence that I was there and had a plane to catch. I wasn’t particularly interested in assigning blame; I wanted to move on to Plan B if I needed to, make sure my dog would be cared for, and make my flight.

What is Blame?

The dictionary definition of “blame” is to find fault with or hold responsible. There certainly are times when people in organizations need to hold people responsible for when their actions cause problems. From a psychological perspective, though, blame is a defense mechanism. It makes the blamer feel powerful by making the person being blamed feel small. But blaming a person (or a system) for a problem gets in the way of solving a problem.

The High Price of Blame

When blame is the default behavior in an organization, bad things happen.

People withhold information because the fear how they’ll be treated when they bring up problems. That makes it harder for anyone to actually solve problems. Of course, problems can’t hide forever. When the information finally comes out, the problems are usually bigger and the options to solve them fewer.

People invest energy making sure that they won’t be blamed when a problem arises (as problems inevitably do). That leads to paper trails, positioning, and creating plausible deniability.

Once problems do surface, people are scared or disengaged and don’t offer their best ideas. That makes it more likely that the fix will be a band-aid that soothes symptoms, but doesn’t address root causes.

When blame is the knee-jerk response, people don’t learn from problems and mistakes. The may try something different, but it won’t be from a deep understanding of the situation. They’ll try the least risky action that will protect them from more blame.

All this makes it more likely that it will take longer for problems to become visible—at which point they will be even hairier and harder to fix, creating a vicious cycle.

Shifting the Blame Dynamic

When someone brings a problem to you, you have a choice. You can blame, or you can engage in problem-solving.

First, slow down and become aware of your own response. Are you feeling scared or angry? Are you worried that you will be blamed? Blaming the messenger won’t change whether someone else will blame you. But, if you move to problem-solving, you will be able to communicate what you plan to do, not just bring bad news.

Ask questions—using a neutral tone of voice—to understand the issue and implications. Questions that start with What and How are likely to sound less blaming than questions that start with Why. (Assuming you don’t ask “What the heck were you thinking?” or “How did you make this mess?” Those questions would not be helpful.)

Figure out what to do about the immediate issue. Ask if the person who brought the problem needs help. If she doesn’t need (or want help), don’t inflict it. Agree on how you’ll assess progress solving the problem.

Ask for the help you need to explain the implications to others.

Later (but not much later), you can investigate root causes. Don’t assume that it’s a problem with the individual; the issue may very well be a system problem. There may be other lessons to learn from the problem—for example, how to set expectations, how to break work into inch pebbles, and how to make progress (and problems) more visible. Be careful of your phrasing. Keep it neutral and on an adult-to-adult level. “What did you learn from this” can sound like a parent or teacher speaking to a child. And don’t call it a “teachable moment”—that phrase smacks of condescension.

In organizations where blame is pervasive, blame is the systemic issue. The only way to work out of blame orientation is to choose not to blame. Instead, demonstrate problem-solving, and gradually rebuild trust with those with whom you work directly.

There are times when we do have to hold individuals responsible for their actions. But usually it’s more important to fix the problem and learn from the situation.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of blame, do your best to stay centered and move toward problem-solving. Articulate what you know about the problem, what you have tried, and where you need help. Remember that blamers often feel small and scared. Blaming is their way of coping with those feelings.

So, what happened at the kennel?

When I made my request to check availability the fourth time, the receptionist finally walked over to a wall calendar that showed all the kennel reservations for the week. There was space for Pudge. It took three minutes for the hand off. I expressed my gratitude that there was a place open and continued on my way.

You could look at this and say the receptionist is a little slow and doesn’t understand customer service. But I think there was something else at play. She didn’t want to be blamed. Fear of blame begets blaming, and blame always delays solving the problem.

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13 Replies to “The Blame Game”

  1. Hi Esther,

    in my opinion blame changes individual’s behaviour. The goal of their behaviour is not to achieve a certain goal (positive feedback) but to avoid somebody else blaming them (negative feedback). Behaviour that stems from pain avoidance, and is not self-motivated but controlled by others, is less creative and produces work of lesser quality.

    Do you have any recommendation how you should deliver bad news, so that others (or you) don’t get blamed, but you can get into a problem solving discussion? So far in your blog, you discussed what you can do, if you’re the one who could blame others for bringing bad news.

    Kind Regards,

    • Hi, Andreas –

      Center first. If anything will work, congruence will.

      Have as much factual information about the issue and implications as you can gather, without delaying making your report.

      Sometimes a little prevention in your opening can help, something like, “I want to let you know about a problem, and what I’m doing to solve it (or, so we can start working on it, or what ever the appropriate next step is).”

      That establishes problem solving as the agenda for the conversation,

      Sometimes congruence doesn’t work. In that case, hold on to your self-esteem. Sometimes you can break the other person out of their blaming trance by changing position. If you are standing, sit. If you are sitting stand (without telegraphing aggression). Acknowledge your part in it (if you have a part in it), and say you want to get to work solving the problem.

      Is this what you were looking for?


  2. In a work environment the ‘blame game’ can also add to your worker’s stress levels. Now that may sound like an excuse, but stress can make accomplishing work more difficult, and not only that make you vulnerable to getting sick, or having a mental breakdown. It also puts too much emphasis on the problem, and not its solution.

    I might write about this in my blog for the week, cause I have a little experience with the blame game. The problem also comes in when expectations are unrealistic. Why did it take you so long to do X? Is another way to pass the blame. Yes you know your job was to do X, but the person pointing the finger is clearly more upset with how long it took, not whether you found a solution. That sort of behavior is not likely to instill that person with the desire to jump out and help again. That much is sure.

    • Good point about the health effects. I came across some research lately connects health risks with bad bosses (will try to remember exactly where–maybe Bob Sutton’s Good Boss/Bad Boss). I suspect the stress dynamics are similar.

  3. A blame culture puts everyone in a defensive stance. When a problem comes to light, the first reaction is “It’s not my fault.” What’s needed is the exact opposite: an offensive stance, one centered on attacking the problem.

    This is a great post, and I love how you say that we have a choice between blaming and problem solving.

    • Yes, and when people are in a defensive stance they are focused on avoiding or deflecting blame rather than solving the problem.

  4. I try to use statements like: The couse isn’t important right now, please just let’s find a solution. It’s even more tricky if you are rightfully blamed.

    • Yeah. I find acknowledging my part in the situation–without placating or groveling–can help the other person re-focus on solving the problem.

  5. Several years ago, at a previous job, the Director of IT told me that one of his most important lesson to impart was “never accept the blame, always blame the computer systems.” This never sat well with me and I’m glad I no longer work there.

    • That statement says a lot about the director, and his relationship with the business. Probably trickled down through the rest of the organization.

  6. Regarding a previous comment I think it’s important to separate “blame” and “negative feedback”. There is a big difference between the two. You don’t need to blame, but you definitely need to be able to deliver constructive negative feedback on a healthy team. Feedback is uncomfortable enough for most people, lets not saddle it with blame as well 🙂

    Esther I love that you refer to unwanted help as “inflicted”, it’s so true, because it often hurts instead of helps!


    • Hi, Chris –

      I agree, teams need to learn to give peer-to-peer feedback if they want to stay healthy.

      I like to think that no feedback is negative if it is aimed at improving work results and working relationships. Maybe changed-focused, improvement focused, or strengthening effectiveness.

      At any rate, it’s information that the receiver can choose to use (and always reveals something about the sender, too). Feedback that carries blame isn’t likely to be heard or acted on.

  7. I read How to win friends and influence people when I was in middle school and understood from then on how futile criticism is. It has worked quite well.

    Why don’t people read? Better the technical skills, worse become the people skills in engineers.

    In my team I try to look over blame. I even have this joke not to use ‘git blame’ command when there is something wrong in the code.

    When we find problems, we shout out the problem. Since we all sit together someone starts solving it without getting into who did it. Then in retrospective we go over the problems and find steps to mitigate them next time

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