Avoiding the blame game

There’s no shortage of blame going around. Pick up a newspaper, turn on the TV or look at your phone, and you’ll see accusations being hurled across political divides, within families and over international borders. I often think of all the wasted energy that goes into blaming and accusing others. That same energy could be used constructively, to build and create instead of to tear down.

Blame is just as poisonous in the workplace, debilitating teams and stifling innovation and productivity.

Think about how you’ve felt in the past when you blamed someone for something that happened. You were likely holding on to a host of other accompanying emotions — anger, resentment and frustration. Now be mindful about releasing all of that negativity, and charting a course forward, using your energy to be proactive instead of reactive.

Once you recognize, through personal awareness, that blaming others isn’t a solution, the question becomes how can you break the cycle; and, respond instead, with intentionally impactful behavioral strategies?

One of the disciplines we use at Bright Side is to get leaders to “unpack” their assumptions around blame. A case in point:

Elizabeth, a senior executive, paints a dismal picture of her staff that includes infighting, poor cooperation, and lack of accountability. Discussing a recent project failure, she offers no shortage of accusations.

Without minimizing her frustrations, we ask her to dig deeper to create awareness about herself. What was her role? Did she set clear expectations? Clarify roles and responsibilities? Provide feedback?  Does she model the very behaviors — accountability, truthful communication, collaboration — she expects from others?

This self-assessment isn’t easy; it’s typically uncomfortable for people to step back and see their role objectively. Once Elizabeth acknowledges that she isn’t simply an innocent bystander, and that some of her behaviors aren’t constructive, we work to identify observably different behaviors that she will practice to achieve the desired outcomes.

At this point, Elizabeth has already made considerable progress, able to see her actions more clearly and able to experiment with more effective behaviors. The next phase is to work with her (and leaders like her) to think through what some of the barriers might be when she goes to apply this in the workplace.

In Elizabeth’s case, one problem area is that she isn’t comfortable with confrontation, and as such, she avoids addressing problems until it’s too late. By recognizing the obstacles and identifying concrete situations where she can start to experiment with leading differently, she is prepared for the challenges and also better able to hold herself personally accountable.

The path to real solutions and progress occurs when people mindfully accept accountability for their own habits, and resolve to improve themselves rather than blame those around them.

Here are a few ways you can get started:

  1. Communicate clearly and civilly — Even if others are engaged in finger pointing and name-calling, stay above it. Set a standard and model the kind of interactions and conversations you expect from others.
  2. Kudos to you — Recognize that when you exhibit positive behaviors, it’s contagious and that you have a beneficial impact on business outcomes.  Acknowledge, to others, that you’re experimenting with expanding your personal habits, despite the discomfort. Of course, commend yourself for establishing new and observably different patterns of behavior.
  3. Clap your hands — OK, you don’t necessarily have to give applause. But you do need to counter blame and negativity by recognizing the good work and positive behaviors taking place around you. Give words of praise and acknowledgement where deserved.  Intentionally identify when colleagues exhibit positive habits and behaviors. Do this daily. It:
    • Reinforces the message that you value positive, constructive behavior;
    • Keeps you on your toes; and exposes you to learning (and hopefully adopting) the effective behaviors from those around you that diminish the blame game.

Donna Rae Smith is founder and CEO at Bright Side Inc.