Ever been in a meeting whose only purpose seems to be to assign blame?

I recently attended a meeting like that — one person called out another group and blamed them for a situation we were facing.

Instead of a productive meeting that allowed us to drill down to the root cause of the situation and devise solutions, we spent our time managing emotions and tamping down an incipient conflict. And even then, it took three additional calls to explain the situation and move us onto a more constructive path.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens a LOT.

Assigning blame is a very human response to an uncomfortable situation. Blaming others can help us deflect blame from our actions, project our own guilt and discomfort onto someone else, and even assert our own status. (After all, if you’re in the wrong, I must be in the right… right?) 

What blame DOESN’T do is actually resolve the situation or prevent future problems.

See, blame is not a healthy or constructive feeling. And when we seek to place blame, we create tension, friction, and a negative environment across our team.

Even worse, blame actually stands in the way of our ability to identify and correct the root cause of a problem. We’re too busy looking for targets — and trying to avoid blame from others — to openly and honestly discuss what went wrong and how to fix it.

And that’s not at all helpful. It doesn’t matter who is to blame; what matters is how we adjust going forward.

Focus on Learning (Not on Blame)

Hindsight is invaluable in helping us adjust how to move forward more productively. But too often, we use hindsight as a tool for pinpointing who is to blame for a situation.

Blame wastes time, brings down morale, and can actually distract us from identifying and fixing the processes and procedures that contributed to the error or situation.

So instead of trying to identify who made a mistake, use these for methods to shift the focus away from finger-pointing and onto learning and improvement.

  1. Use the Five Whys. Ask yourself “why” at least five times to dig into the actual reason that the problem occurred. This forces you to explain the situation methodically, which avoids assumptions and helps you identify root causes.
  2. Embed retrospectives into your project work. During or at the end of key activities or phases, conduct a retrospective with your team to identify what went well and where you need to improve. Bring the lessons learned and new ways of working and behaving into the next activity or phase.
  3. Create an environment of continuous improvement, where it is okay to fail. Recognize that the team are likely doing their best under challenging circumstances. Consider their constraints, the context around their decisions and actions, and focus on what you can do differently next time.
  4. Establish an expectation of “no blame” across your team. Take conversations that are blame-oriented offline and set them up to be constructive.

Blame Is Counterproductive

When we feel stressed, angry, or threatened, blaming someone else may feel satisfying. But blame is wildly counterproductive — for you, for your team, and for your organization.

A culture of blame incentivizes people to hide their mistakes and encourages them to avoid escalating the problems they uncover. Plus, it creates unnecessary stress, bad feelings, and all kinds of interpersonal conflict.

And blame doesn’t fix a thing. Even where human error is a factor, a thorough root-cause analysis will frequently reveal systems, processes, and procedures that can be improved with an eye to preventing future mistakes of the same type.

So the next time, you see a blame game forming amongst your team — nip it in the bud and redirect the team’s energy to more productive pursuits.

And if you think you might be the one leading the blame game, pause and consider if the story you are telling yourself is truly accurate — or are you blaming others because you don’t want to ultimately take any responsibility for the situation you find yourself in?  

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