Imagine this: Your team is working weekends to submit a new client proposal in a race against the clock. You finally manage to compile all the necessary documents, and you press “send” just in time. You take a deep breath and express gratitude for the team’s efforts. You are confident that you will likely win the bid based on the quality of your proposal.
A week later, the client sends you an email stating, “We really liked your bid. We would have loved to work with your company, but we discovered an inconsistency between your numbers and the supporting documentation. We’re pressed for time, so we’ve decided to proceed with another candidate. I am confident that we will be able to collaborate in the future.”
You are distressed, frustrated, and irate. You summon your team, reprimand them for improperly inspecting the package, and storm out of the room.
What sort of impression have you left? Your team likely views you as impolite and ungrateful. They put a great deal of effort into that proposal, and they may even feel hatred for you at the moment. Your relationship may have suffered irreparable damage.
A seminal study published in 2001 demonstrates that the brain reacts more strongly to negative experiences than to positive ones, and that our memories retain these experiences for longer. The authors concluded that “good can only match or defeat evil through numerical superiority.”
How much can good overcome evil? Five positive experiences equal one negative experience. John Gottman, a psychologist and relationship researcher, discovered this ratio in the 1970s, and it still applies to the workplace today. A study published in 2005 found that when employees reported a negative event at work, it affected their mood five times more than when they reported a positive event.
Regardless of how nice you believe you are, every unkind word or angry tone you utter undoes five times as much good as your kind words and actions.
Who’s at fault?
Gottman contends that criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling are the most destructive behaviors in relationships. My experience assisting organizations in fostering a stronger culture of accountability has led me to the conclusion that blame is the most destructive behavior. Blame encompasses the four aforementioned behaviors, and based on my experience, it is the one we must address first.
There are two major obstacles to overcoming guilt:
Humans are hardwired to assign blame.
When things go wrong, we are all hardwired to place the blame on other individuals or circumstances. These tendencies are partially influenced by something known as the fundamental attribution bias. We tend to believe that people’s actions are a reflection of who they are, rather than considering that other (social or environmental) factors may influence their behavior.
This is why, when major workplace disasters are reported in the news, “human error” is frequently the first and sometimes only explanation given, while systemic factors that contributed to the failure are ignored. Additionally, it is the most satisfying. If others are to blame for our problems, then it is they who must change, not us.
There is also a biological basis for our propensity to assign blame. Recent brain imaging research from Duke University indicates that positive events are processed by the prefrontal cortex, which is time-consuming and tends to conclude that good things occur by accident. On the other hand, the amygdala, which controls our fight-or-flight response, processes negative events. Typically, the amygdala concludes that bad things occur on purpose, and it does so lightning fast. So quickly, in fact, that we don’t even realize we’re making an assumption; we just know that the person closest to the issue must have done it intentionally!
We assign more blame than we think.
This leads to the second issue with laying blame: we are unaware of how often we do it. Even the most accomplished executives with whom I work admit that they initially believed my “don’t blame” message was important for their team members, but not for themselves. However, once they began tracking the frequency with which they blamed other people or circumstances for their problems, they were shocked by how often they caught themselves in the act.
Unfortunately, this conduct propels their teams into a downward spiral. Our brains interpret blame in the same manner as a physical assault. When we are blamed, our prefrontal cortices shut down and direct all of our energy to defending ourselves, which ironically impedes our ability to solve the problem for which we are being blamed.
Blame also destroys accountable, healthy behaviors. No one will accept responsibility for issues if they believe they will be punished for doing so. Moreover, learning and problem solving cease to exist in workplaces where blame is tolerated. Instead of learning from their mistakes, employees who are blamed tend to conceal them.
What then can we do?
Eliminate blame culture on your team.
Now that we have a better understanding of the psychology of blame, here are two simple adjustments you can make to promote a blame-free culture on your team, particularly if you are a manager.
Share your errors and adopt the mindset, “We are all still learning.”
We all occasionally commit errors. It is what distinguishes us as human. There is no benefit to blaming and shaming one another for our flawed nature. You benefited from learning from your errors, so permit others to do so as well. Use problems and errors as teaching opportunities, not as opportunities to shame. Discuss your own mistakes and the lessons you’ve learned as a manager. Creating a psychologically secure environment will encourage others to follow suit. When a problem arises, teammates will be more likely to acknowledge their contribution to its creation and stop shifting blame.
For instance, you could conduct regular lessons learned debriefings with your team at the conclusion of a project to determine what went wrong, what caused it, and how you will use this information to develop a stronger strategy moving forward. This is how you teach others to approach problems with compassion and kindness. Remember that one negative utterance can set you back five steps.
Concentrate on what you can alter.
You cannot change other individuals. In fact, doing so will only increase their resistance to your efforts. When we blame others for our problems, we destroy our own accountability by becoming passive victims, and we destroy the accountability of others by encouraging them to shift blame.
Before assigning blame, consider a systemic approach to your problem, which entails defining the issue by considering the problem as a whole and not in parts. Weak leaders may ask, “Who is at fault?” whereas strong leaders who employ a systems approach would ask, “Where did the process fail?” Examining what’s wrong with your systems is more likely to yield solutions to your organization’s problems than examining what’s wrong with your employees.
Once, a member of my team deleted a survey template by accident. We did not have a backup copy, so my assistant and I were annoyed and frustrated with this employee. Instead of placing blame on this individual, we asked, “How did we contribute to the problem?” We realized after putting our heads together that there are no security protocols in place to protect templates and files. Creating a folder to store duplicates of all of our templates was a straightforward solution.
We may not be solely responsible for all of our problems, but our past actions or inactions frequently contribute to our future problems, which we are most likely to blame on others. Whenever you encounter a problem, even if you are certain that it was caused by someone else, you should ask yourself, “How have I contributed to this problem?” How can I approach this circumstance, this individual, and myself with generosity?” These questions will provide insight into how to prevent a recurrence of the problem and how to discuss it in a manner that fosters trust as opposed to fear or contempt.
Eliminating blame will boost employee morale and well-being, as well as encourage kindness on your team (and who doesn’t want to work for a kind manager?). Implementing these two strategies will make your organization a place where compassion, trust, and therefore people can flourish.