Why and how to avoid playing the blame game

by | Apr 19, 2017 | Blog | 0 comments

If you love to blame others rather than take responsibility for your own actions, please stop reading this post now. Don’t bother wasting your time on a topic that is irrelevant for you.

On the other hand, if you notice yourself playing the blame game every now and then, you should find this content of value – if I do my job right.

The biggest players in the blame game these days seem to be journalists, especially those in main stream media – as much as it pains me to write this. (Before I moved into corporate communications and then organizational effectiveness and change work and now leadership development and coaching, investigative reporting was my first career choice.)

“Who’s to blame?” is a popular line of questioning among TV newscasters, especially news show hosts these days.

Yet, the more newscasters and others play the blame game, the more everyone loses – regardless of the playing field, be it politics, the community or business.  

Finding a scapegoat – either legitimate or convenient – is bad behavior on a number of counts.

Here’s why. Blaming people makes them feel like failures, and can put them in a defensive, fearful and threatened state, which hurts their ability to function.

When you and anyone else feels under attack—perceived or actual—the threat takes over your attention. It becomes very hard to refocus your brain. You tend to freeze, flee, or fight – the basic instincts that protected your ancestors back in the day when they were worried about wild animal predators.

The rush of adrenaline you feel improves your motor functioning to help you flee. Your field of vision contracts to keep you on track, although it hurts your ability to see what’s outside your narrow path, both literally and figuratively.

You also experience symptoms that impair your ability to think clearly, which is a detriment to workers in today’s cognitive age. Your working memory shrinks, your creativity and imagination falters so it’s much harder to come up with clever ideas or insights, and you can make errors on the side of pessimism.

Also, your self-esteem can suffer, especially if you think your status is dropping among your peers or others whose opinions you value. That also makes you feel even more defensive and threatened.

Furthermore, blaming the individual for acting poorly ignores the effects of the environment on how the person behaves. Environment influences our behavior more than any of us like to acknowledge. Yes, we are creatures of our habitat and our culture.

For example, consider two recent companies in the news, United Airlines and McDonald’s, and their employees’ actions under duress.

United Airlines, like many airlines, is known for its formidable rule-based culture. The company expects its employees to follow its strict policies and procedures, which the crew did that fateful April evening when they called the police to remove passengers to make way for other crew members on the fully-booked flight from Chicago to Louisville, KY. (For more about this, see the Wall Street Journal article, Behind United Airlines’ Fateful Decision to Call Police; Airline’s rules-based culture in spotlight after man was dragged off flight by law enforcement.)

By contrast, consider how the “burger-flipping” employees of McDonald’s reacted when the “Facebook Live” killer pulled into the line at their drive-in window. One of the workers recognized the alleged killer and called authorities.

The workers gave the killer his order of Chicken McNuggets but delayed finishing up his fries to allow the police to arrive. Holding back fries is probably not part of McDonald’s standard operating procedures, but it worked for the greater good of society in this case. (Check out the CNN report, Quick-thinking McDonald’s worker leads police to Facebook killer.)

When you recognize that your brain is designed to minimize danger and maximize reward, you’re more inclined to take actions that help yourself and others work in a “positive” (reward) rather than a “danger” (threat) state – or at least a neutral setting.

Rather than demand “Who can I blame?” change your line of inquiry.

Ask other questions that put people more at ease in a challenging situation. These questions include:

  • What happened?
  • How are we going to solve the challenge we’re facing?
  • When can we expect to either know more or be our way to fixing the problem?
  • Where can we go or what can we do to get more information and insights?

In addition to shunning the question “Who’s to blame?” don’t bother asking “Why did you do it?” or “Why did he or she do it?”

Asking “why” about behavior hurts more than it helps because you generally don’t know why you and others do things, even when it’s your own behavior you’re trying to figure out. Very few people have the self-awareness to do a root cause analysis on their own behavior much less the tools to understand others’ motivation and behavior.

So please follow the advice of this former journalist, respect the brain and avoid the temptation to play the blame game, especially at work. You’ll win more than you’ll lose.

Are you willing to give up eating crow and instead enjoy munching fries?


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