Updated: Nov 18, 2019
For several years I have been extremely fortunate to be a member of a team of senior leaders who are not interested in playing the ‘Blame Game’. My colleagues have been men and women of great creativity, integrity, humour, compassion and faith who are committed to living their lives in humility and transparency. In the years since this team has developed, I have experienced none of the jostling for position or one-up-manship that can be common in even the best of teams. Open, honest, courageous transparency has dissolved or eradicated all need for posturing, self-aggrandisement, hidden agendas, smoke screens or blame shifting.
In short, I am blessed among women to have been a member of a working team whose maturity is clearly shown in its capacity and willingness to work together to solve problems rather than embark on a witch-hunt to work out who can be the fall guy for any problems that arise. This is a group who really endeavours as a team to take responsibility for the stress points, blunders and inevitable mistakes experienced by any thriving, developing, working environment.
I haven’t always been so fortunate. My earliest years as a leader in a church context were fraught with fear. The eldership team I was part of struggled with intimidation, fear of authority, fear of failure, fear of confrontation, and fear of having a different opinion than the leader – and talking about the leader, it is leaders who set the atmosphere for any environment, domineering or collaborative, controlling or empowering. In later years I came to understand how fearful my leader was, and realised that he had compensated for his fear by leading in an extremely authoritarian manner, thus cycling full circle from being afraid to creating an environment of fear.
One of the most destructive characteristics of a leader is unwillingness to take responsibility when things go wrong, and my old pastor was the poster boy for this. The environment we served in included not only an inability to take responsibility for problems arising, but also a deep-seated desperation to find someone else to blame.
A blame-based culture demands a scapegoat to carry the blame for whatever goes wrong, even when what happened was no one’s fault, just a random problem that occurred. When this person is nailed, everyone else on the team heaves a sigh of relief because, by definition, if someone else is to blame, then I won’t be held accountable.
The difficulty here is that if the responsibility is always someone else’s, no one ever develops, no one ever grows, no one ever learns from what didn’t work well to find out what would work better. The scapegoat labours under a huge weight of condemnation and shame and will do whatever it takes to get out of the situation, often by looking for someone else to pass the blame onto, and the sickening cycle continues.
When the fear of being wrong pervades a culture or a family, very little is learned about how to improve, as people spend more time trying to avoid getting into trouble rather than looking for ways to develop and improve. Hostility reigns as people hurl accusations at each other, ducking and diving to prevent accusations sticking to them.
A blame culture is draining, energy destroying, and destructively counterproductive to good relationships and productivity. The fear of being wrong dissolves creativity, innovation, initiative, unity and good peer relationships, generating instead an environment of suspicion, hostility, and fear of stepping out of the box in any way, particularly in decision-making.
The Free Dictionary’s definition of the Blame Game:
blame game – accusations exchanged among people who refuse to accept responsibility for some undesirable event
When people play the Blame Game, their ability to learn from mistakes and develop new strategies is severely hindered, whereas taking responsibility for the pressures of life without looking for someone else to accuse, yell at or hold responsible, brings freedom, harmony, collaboration and innovation, and ultimately breakthrough.
The bizarre thing is that many times no one is actually to blame! People blame and accuse others out of their own frustrations, their own deep shame and pain that needs a pressure relief. Whether they be boss, worker or family member, they end up defaulting to indiscriminately laying blame, regardless of whether there is real fault or not and how minor that fault may be.
In families, this is particularly toxic; playing the Blame Game can be leave people feeling isolated, passive, lazy and withdrawn, doing whatever they can to stay out of the line of fire. Blaming can cycle around the home or office as accusations and frustrations are thrown around without any real evidence, and deep rifts appear in otherwise healthy teams.
Blaming is a learned habit that often, but not always, stems from a background that provoked a fear of being wrong. I’ve noticed that many people who were quite ‘good’ as children, equate making a mistake with ‘being wrong’, and will do whatever they can to avoid being seen as ‘wrong’. Thus, they find it almost impossible to admit a mistake or take responsibility for their own actions if those actions caused a problem, and sometimes it’s very difficult for them to say ‘Sorry, I was wrong’.
Remember when you spilled or broke something as a kid how you immediately yelled at your sibling ‘Look what you made me do’ loudly enough for your mother to hear, thus casting doubt on how it happened, even if it clearly had nothing to do with the other child. Being unable to take responsibility is a childish response that is will never be able to create a mature working environment. We may no longer yell it out, but if your inner response is still along the lines of ‘Look what you made me do’, you need to work on growing up.
Perfectionism is a curse, a noose around the neck of the person who doesn’t feel free to acknowledge they’ve made a mistake. Sufferers of this awful characteristic don’t realise how much it disempowers them, nor do they realise how much their need to be right all the time disempowers the people around them.
Developing a culture of taking responsibility begins with the leaders, but it’s vital that the rest of the team pick up on it. This can only be done when the team knows the leader and the others are on their side. It’s very tempting to blame others when things go wrong, or failure occurs. If a team member’s default is to blame and accuse they will not progress well through the organisation because leaders are people who take responsibility for working out how to fix the issue and move on.
One of the most empowering strategies to eradicate the Blame Game from your business, church, family, sports team, or wherever you are suffering under it, is to help the group think further than the problems. Our team members always understood that if they were coming with a problem, they needed to have already thought about the solution. If you help people spend time thinking about solutions rather than establishing who’s to blame, most problems are quickly fixed. Having an attitude that is oriented to finding a solution will change the culture in a very short time. Without exception, if the key person will change their attitude to blaming, everyone else will follow suit.
Being a solutions-based team rather than blame-based is incredibly exhilarating. All that energy and focus that was used to avoid being in trouble, when brought to bear for envisioning the future, is incredibly potent. Amazing entrepreneur/inventors like Edison and Henry Ford were known as people who were not afraid to make mistakes. In fact, they viewed their mistakes from a positive perspective, seeing it as part of their learning curve. The more they found what didn’t work, the closer they felt they came to finding what would work; and so it proved to be.
Be aware that developing a no-blame culture doesn’t mean that people should not be held to account for shoddy workmanship or bad attitudes, but it does mean that it doesn’t have to stop there. When you talk to someone about a legitimate mistake or problem, if the focus is on how to fix it rather than shaming them into a corner, so much better work will be produced, whatever that work happens to be.
The best leaders and innovators are optimistic, either by nature, or they’ve trained themselves to be that way. It may take a little time to break old habits, but it will be worth it.