Donna Rae Smith: Avoiding the blame game

Donna Rae Smith, founder and CEO, Bright Side Inc.

“Don’t find fault, find a remedy.” — Henry Ford

There’s no shortage of blame going around. Pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV 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 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, frustration. Now think about releasing all of that negativity and charting a course forward using your energy to be proactive instead of reactive.

Once you recognize that blaming others isn’t a solution, the question becomes how can you break the cycle and respond instead with healthier behavioral strategies? One of the techniques 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 dismissing her frustrations, we ask her to dig deeper. What was her role? Did she set clear expectations? Clarify roles and responsibilities? Provide feedback? Does she model the behaviors — accountability, clear communication, collaboration — that 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 new behaviors that will achieve the desired outcomes.

At this point, Elizabeth has already made considerable progress. She is able to see her actions more clearly and to propose 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 therefore, she avoids addressing problems until it’s too late. By recognizing the obstacles and identifying concrete situations where she can start to behave differently, she is prepared for the challenges and can hold herself accountable.

The path to real solutions and progress occurs when people accept accountability for their own behaviors and resolve to work on themselves rather than on those around them. Here are a few ways that 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 for the kind of interactions and conversations you expect from others.

2. Kudos to you. Recognize that when you exhibit positive behaviors, you have a beneficial impact on business outcomes. Acknowledge that you’re demonstrating these behaviors despite the personal discomfort, and commend yourself for establishing new 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. Extend words of praise and acknowledgement where deserved. Intentionally identify when colleagues exhibit positive 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.

The process of replacing entrenched, deep-rooted behaviors with new ones doesn’t happen overnight. It takes repeated effort and hard work to unlearn and then re-learn. But the effort is well worth it for ourselves and those around us.

Donna Rae Smith is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc., a behavioral strategy company that teaches leaders to be masters of change. For more than two decades, she and the Bright Side team have been recognized as innovators in organizational and leadership development and the key partner to more than 250 of the world’s most influential companies. Smith is a guest leadership blogger for Smart Business and the author of two leadership books, “Building Your Bright Side” and “The Power of Building your Bright Side.” For more information, please visit or contact her at [email protected]