Blame game: How to react to mistakes at work

Despite multiple studies that show failure is good for learning, blame culture can spread like a virus.

Mistakes happen: the email is sent to the wrong person, the decimal point is put in the wrong column. What does your response say about you and your organisation?

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Pointing the finger is frequently the response when things go belly up in business, but playing the blame game isn’t a good tactic for individuals or for organisations. Research shows that a culture of blame inhibits innovation. Then why does scapegoating continue to be so widespread?

Dr Amantha Imber is an organisational psychologist and founder of behavioural science consultancy, Inventium. She says the instinct to blame can stem from insecurity or low self-esteem. “If you can identify someone else who is at fault, you can preserve your own self-esteem. When we blame people, it feels that we have more self-control and appear better to those around us.”

Fear is another reason people “throw others under the bus”, she says.

“If people feel they won’t get that promotion or salary rise, or, worst-case scenario, they will lose their job, then naturally they want to go into self-preservation mode and blame someone else,” Imber says.

Often, it is junior colleagues with the least power who are singled out for blame.

Imber’s advice for them is to identify someone in HR or a senior person who doesn’t work in the same department, but who understands the culture and can offer an external perspective and mentoring.

If the fear of failure takes hold in an organisation, it is difficult to shake off. Despite multiple studies that show failure is good for learning, blame culture can spread like a virus. In a series of experiments in the US, researchers even found a tendency for people to start blaming others shortly after witnessing someone else passing the buck.

If the person doing the blaming is right at the top of the organisation, the message filtering down is that a blame culture is acceptable.

Psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic has written a great deal about incompetent leadership. He says while charm and vision might have got the CEO into the big chair, “if they’re blaming others for their mistakes and taking credit for other people’s achievements, and if they get very aggressive and defensive when they are criticised, if they can’t connect with others because they lack empathy and they have unrealistically high self-confidence, then you can assume they are narcissistic”.

It is alarming how much Chamorro-Premuzic’s description defines many current world leaders.

It is also alarming how much a personality type like this infects a business and puts it at serious disadvantage when it comes to innovation and risk-taking.

“If people feel they won’t get that promotion or salary rise, or, worst-case scenario, they will lose their job, then naturally they want to go into self-preservation mode and blame someone else.” Dr Amantha Imber, Inventium

Imber recalls working with a leadership team of a large national retailer.

“I was running an ideation session to generate their growth strategy, and what I found was a group of very limited risk-takers, very averse to putting forward creative and disruptive ideas in case they were put down or blamed by the leader of the team, the managing director.”

She says people would also criticise co-workers’ ideas to make themselves look good. “No one had the courage to back anything that seemed a bit disruptive. They had a very strong fear-based culture coming from the top down, and it made them so ineffective.”

However, it is extremely rare that anyone within the organisation is willing to confront the CEO directly.

Joanna Kalowski has worked as a mediator for more than 30 years, specialising in dispute resolution, cross-cultural communication and organisational development.
She says the moment we choose to blame someone or something, we abrogate any kind of responsibility for ourselves and any influence over what we can do about the situation.

Blame is often the tip of the iceberg – the outcome of frustration and anxiety that have built up over time, says Kalowski.

The longer the blame game is allowed to continue, the more people are likely to take to their corners and stay there.

“The best advice for an HR or senior manager is to tackle the issue quickly, but don’t go in and investigate, because you are likely to get drawn in and risk being seen as partisan. Call independent people in, get around a table and sort it out,” Kalowski says.

Author Jim Collins, in his classic book Good to Great, calls these kinds of sessions “autopsies without blaming”. Using mistakes as valuable lessons is a perfect way for a leader and their team to learn and grow, he says.

In group and one-to-one discussion, Kalowski says it’s not uncommon to find that the issue that ignited the blame game is not the real point of contention at all.

“If you treat it as being the main issue, you miss the underlying cause that may be dissatisfaction with the workplace, the boss, some new policy, where my desk is located or why I can’t access flexible work practices; all this has been distilled down into one little blame issue.”

Kalowski says her aim is always to build competence and shift the focus to the future.

“The shape of the conversation might go: ‘Let’s talk about the failure of X. We are disappointed, we know you are disappointed; let’s work out why it happened, and how we could do it better next time’,” Kalowski says.

Reflecting on organisations that do this well, Imber says Australian property company Mirvac is very focused on learning from mistakes.

Imber recalls what happened when a new policy was introduced at the company that didn’t go to plan.

“Within 24 hours, people at Mirvac began finding flaws with it and voicing their concerns. [The CEO] Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz sent an email around to all staff and said: ‘Sorry, I don’t think I have thought this through sufficiently, and we are going to do some more research and then reintroduce it when it has been improved’. The message was that, even at the very top, people can fail, feedback can be taken on board, and the end result is something better.

“It was such a small act, but that email signalled so much about what is acceptable and how blame can be defused and turned into something positive.”


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