Pointing fingers is something we’ve all been guilty of in the past. On the flip side, everyone also knows what it feels like to be the one pointed at. It’s a terrible feeling, and one that often sews discord and animosity between the accuser and the accused.
When it’s playground politics we’re talking about, two kids might engage in a couple rounds of the ‘blame game’ and then no longer play with each other for the rest of recess. When it’s workplace politics, however, the stakes are a lot higher. Playing ‘the blame game’ at work can lead to people losing their jobs and major mistakes going improperly addressed.
The blame game gets you nowhere, especially in a professional setting, and it’s something business owners and higher-ups need to be particularly cautious of, considering they are the ones most likely to point fingers and shirk responsibility.
Experts say that the blame game usually starts at the top. Those with more power tend to cast blame on those with less. But why?
According to researchers at the University of California, San Diego, and Nanyang Technological University, it has to do with something called a “choice mindset”.
In their study, these researchers found that “people in positions of power are more likely to adopt a ‘choice mindset,’ which means that although they have more choices… they still see others with less power as having lots of choices, regardless of their situation.” It’s important to note as well, that many definitions of the word ‘power’, in fact, have to do with how many choices a person can actually make.
CEOs and other high-level employees have a lot of power and can make a lot of choices. Their lower-level workers, on the other hand, cannot. The problem is, those power dynamics and lack of ‘choices’ are not always recognized when people start playing the ‘blame game’ in the office.This choice mindset, the paper goes on to say, leads to high-power individuals being “more likely to blame others if they perform poorly and they are also more likely to punish them.”
The most obvious impact of the blame game is that playing it creates an unstable, toxic work environment. If employees feel they could be blamed for something they may not have been responsible for, that creates tension and stress. Undue stress at work has been proven to have an effect on employee satisfaction, productivity and attendance.
Another reason higher-ups should avoid displacing blame is that it can lead to scapegoating, which is often counterproductive. When looking at major workplace mistakes, it’s not common for one person to be solely responsible for what occurred. But when the finger is pointed at a single person, they are often let go, which means you could end up losing a perfectly capable, hard-working employee for no real reason.Furthermore, by getting rid of the ‘wrong person’ so to speak, you’re not addressing the real problem, and there’s a good chance those same mistakes will continue to pop up in the future.
Once the blame game gets started, it can be hard to dial it back, so you want to avoid engaging in it from the beginning.Here are three steps you can take to keep the blame game out of your workplace:
Conduct “Blameless Postmortems” — This is a strategy often used in the tech industry. The idea is that everyone involved in a project that failed, gets together to determine what went wrong without pointing fingers or casting blame. This results in employees feeling safe to speak their minds, and creates a space where those who made mistakes can learn from them without fear of being fired or reprimanded.
Make sure your employees know that taking responsibility for a mistake won’t result in harsh punishment — Obviously, there are caveats to this one. If the mistake is bad enough, it makes sense to punish the employee accordingly. But in general, you want to establish an environment where your workers are encouraged to be open and honest, rather than a workplace where employees are incentivized to hide their mistakes.
Consider Responsibility as being “Top-Down” — In other words, share the blame, because rarely is it ever just one person’s fault. As one of the researchers at the University of California said, “Managers should be aware of how many more choices they have than their subordinates and their tendency to project their own choices onto others, especially when employees make mistakes.”
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