The blame game is a dangerous one. Even though it’s a natural brain reflex to blame others when things go wrong, it can be detrimental at work. It can destroy trust and goodwill in a work environment, poisoning it with fear and tension.
The Dynamics of Blame at Work
By seeking blame, you create a toxic environment of fear and mistrust, which results in lower productivity, heightened tensions, and potential feuds between colleagues. When team members are more focused on whom to blame than solving any issues, it can lead to an atmosphere of paralysis instead of innovation.
Workplace blame is a complex thing. For example, team members may blame each other for mismanagement when a project is running behind schedule instead of working together to resolve the issue. Often this behavior, which we lovingly call a Blameaphant, can spring up from situations like fear of loss or conflict avoidance.
And that’s the power of blame-shifting: it stifles creativity and hinders risk-taking, freezing the workplace to a standstill. Instead of team harmony and progress, you get decreased productivity, broken trust, and increased tension.
A Blameaphant running rampant at work can be like trying to contain a wildfire. It can spread quickly and cause much destruction in its wake. The only way to deal effectively is to start at the source and work your way out.
What Does a Blamephant Sound Like?
Remember that it is often easier and less risky to blame another than to own a role you may have played. The language around blaming often abdicates our responsibility in a situation. You might say or hear others say:
- “Can you believe they did that?”
- “It’s not what I would do, but…”
- “They never… / They always…”
- “[Leader] knows this is what happens but never does anything about it.”
What you hear underneath these phrases is a team member feeling powerless and frustrated that their voices are not being heard. This can lead to hopelessness, further eroding morale and productivity. Leaders must create an environment where team members feel listened to and empowered. It is also essential for team members to have a healthy dialogue with their leaders and express their concerns respectfully.
Managing Blame Behaviors in the Workplace
When there is a barrier at work, whether between colleagues or in executing a project, for example, instead of acting, we default to blaming others for their inaction in removing the barrier.
Establishing a culture of accountability and trust starts with leadership. Be a leader who sets the tone and models trust and responsibility in the workplace. Embrace an Experimenter’s Mindset and embrace a culture where mistakes are simply part of learning.
Team members have a part to play, too. If you’ve made a mistake, admit it and learn from it, not use it as an excuse to fight back or point the blame at others. Keep the focus on finding solutions rather than assigning blame. Be open to feedback and constructive criticism, which can help you identify improvement areas. Take ownership of your mistakes and strive to do better in the future. Owning your role may not require you to speak up, but I will require you to stop speaking about the issue.
All communication should be clear and respectful, especially regarding challenging issues. For example, suppose a team member has a different opinion. In that case, they should be encouraged to express their views in a respectful and non-confrontational manner. As a result, everyone on our team can feel valued and empowered – one where their voices are heard and respected.
The more team members know that their mistakes won’t result in blame and punishment but in constructive problem-solving and collaboration, the better. This helps build trust, increase productivity, and boost morale – leading to better outcomes for everyone. And when only 15% of team members worldwide feel engaged in the workplace, according to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace, this small action could significantly impact your team members.
Blame can damage relationships, hinder problem-solving opportunities, and unravel trust. Instead of pointing fingers, we should devise solutions that make everyone accountable. Leaders strive to create a culture where communication flows freely, team building flourishes, and success is always in sight.
Sarah Noll Wilson is on a mission to help leaders build and rebuild teams. She aims to empower leaders to understand and honor the beautiful complexity of the humans they serve. Through her work as an Executive Coach, an in-demand Keynote Speaker, Researcher, Contributor to Harvard Business Review, and Bestselling Author of “Don’t Feed the Elephants”, Sarah helps leaders close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make. She hosts the podcast “Conversations on Conversations”, is certified in Co-Active Coaching and Conversational Intelligence, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities. In addition to her work with organizations, Sarah is a passionate advocate for mental health.