News & Insight
April 2011

The Blame Game

WJM talks to WJM Faculty Member Ben Dattner, Ph.D. about his new book written with Darren Dahl, THE BLAME GAME: How the Hidden Rules of Credit and Blame Determine Our Success or Failure (Free Press, March 15, 2011)

WJM: Why does credit and blame matter?

DATTNER: Credit and blame are at the very heart of organizational psychology, and help determine whether individuals learn and grow in their careers or derail, whether teams take an open minded approach to the challenges they face or succumb to the temptation to scapegoat and blame, and whether entire organizations have cultures of trust and problem solving or instead waste time and effort on dysfunctional finger pointing. As an organizational psychologist, every time I work with a client or client organization, the dynamics of credit and blame are what everyone is focused on.

In many workplaces, people come to feel they’re playing a high-stakes game of "blame or be blamed," and this game can be disastrous for the individuals who get caught up in it, for work teams and for whole organizations. From a colleague taking credit for a successful project that was mostly someone else's work, to members of a team feeling they are always being blamed for things that aren't their fault, to one person on a team being scapegoated by the others, the situation can quickly get out of control. And what’s worse, the more emotionally charged a workplace is—such as when our jobs are threatened or when an organization struggles to confront serious internal and external challenges—the more emphatically we play the game, just when we can least afford it and trust, collaboration, and innovation are most needed. Anger and resentment builds, people quit or get fired, projects go off the rails and attention is taken away from working together to solve problems.

What can we do?

Learn to understand the hidden dynamics of the blame game. Considering how factors such as human evolution, childhood experience, gender, and cultural differences influence how credit and blame are assigned and reacted to, our book The Blame Gameshows the many ways in which counterproductive patterns of blaming and inaccurate assignment of credit take root in the workplace. Drawing on true stories from my years of work with companies both large and small, in the US and abroad, as well as his research as a faculty member at New York University the book reveals how we all are vulnerable to falling back on instinctive psychological defense mechanisms of blame-avoidance and credit-grabbing, and portrays how and why this fundamental human tendency gets out of control. The book then shows how we as individuals can arm ourselves with the awareness we need to not fall into the trap of the blame game, as well as how leaders, from CEOs down to managers at all levels, can learn to discern and defuse the problems of credit and blame going on within a team or organization.

Why is this topic timely?

Unfortunately, as the economy has tanked there has been a "bull market" in blame. Whether it’s financial bailouts or oil spills, it seems every time one turns on the television there is some executive testifying before Congress on some topic or other, blaming other organizations rather than taking any accountability. This culture of blame permeates far too many organizations these days, and the result is that organizations fail to motivate their people, to innovate, or to acknowledge and fix deficiencies. Successful leaders, teams, and organizations are able to fight this trend, and to create environments where people are more focused on admitting mistakes and fixing things rather than on deflecting blame or trying to hoard credit.

What kinds of perspectives do you take on credit and blame in the book?

The book considers credit and blame from the point of view of individual psychology, relationships between individuals, dynamics within and between teams, and from the point of view of entire organizations. It also looks at leadership, and gives examples of how great leaders set a personal example for managing the dynamics of credit and blame in an open and positive manner. The book approaches credit and blame from both a theoretical and practical perspective, and I endeavored to balance descriptions with prescriptions.

How can a leader can recognize that an unhealthy credit and blame dynamic exists in their team/organization?

Leaders should pay careful attention to the culture and climate on their teams and in their organizations. If there is too much finger pointing and not enough problem solving, it should be apparent that a negative dynamic has taken hold. If talented workers are leaving the team or if compelling candidates aren’t accepting offers to join the team, this may be a signal that things need to change. But more to the point, leaders should observe how their teams and organizations handle credit and blame on an ongoing basis, to make sure that the wrong people aren’t being blamed for the wrong things in the wrong way at the wrong time.

What are the consequences for not recognizing and addressing that negative dynamic?

If leaders don’t develop mindfulness of the importance of credit and blame, and tolerate or encourage negative dynamics, their teams will stagnate and devolve into finger pointing and recrimination, getting stuck in the present or the past, and will fail to adapt to a rapidly changing business environment. However, by recognizing and addressing negative dynamics, leaders can intervene in a powerful way and turn vicious cycles into virtuous cycles, fostering learning and progress.

For more information about the book:

Ben Dattner, Ph.D., is a WJM Faculty member and an adjunct professor at New York University

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