Why Leaders Never Assign Blame

Monday, the school nurse called about my daughter. If you’re a parent, I don’t know whether you’ve ever felt what that’s like, the thoughts that race through your mind, the tightness in your chest, the conscious effort to breathe normally.

Both of my daughters needed to come home from school. One of them had an infestation of head lice. Her scalp was red and extremely itchy, even bleeding. And she had numerous nits, the eggs of the vermin, in her hair. Our school has a no-nit policy. Searching on the web, I learned that some schools avoid no-nit policies. Because parents would be embarrassed to learn that their kids have lice. And I became thankful that our school does have a no-nit policy. But that’s just the way I am.

Head lice are not something to treat disrespectfully. They are parasites, bugs, alien-looking insects that prey on the blood of their victims, leaving behind itchy and painful sores. They attack the rich and poor alike, the young and the old, the clean and the messy, of all races. They spread by touch, so once a family member is infected, the whole family is at risk. But the condition can be treated, with some effort. Now, in what universe would I as a parent not want to know that my daughter had lice?

In this universe, apparently. Human beings have a long, distinguished history of stigmatizing disease. We do it with cancer, dysentery, melanoma, and worms. We stigmatize everything from AIDS to zits. Just search the web for “cancer stigma,” or whatever disease you care to try. We laugh. We cajole. We blame the patient. Because we desperately want to hide from what we fear. Is this ever an effective course of action? Never.

Playing the Blame Game

I found on the c2.com wiki something called the Blame Game. It’s a group activity, played at corporate meetings. Here’s how to play:

  1. Start by identifying a serious problem, the more imminent and avoidable, the better.
  2. Point your finger directly at someone who has nothing to do with the problem.
  3. Think of an unfounded, false accusation that implicates him.
  4. State it loudly and unashamedly. This is called Passing the Blame.
  5. Watch that person shrivel in terror.
  6. Play then passes to the person you’ve pointed at.

The object of the game is to keep the Blame Session going as long as possible. Remember that no one is ever allowed to offer an actual solution to the problem. You earn bonus points for blaming people not at the meeting while keeping the Blame Session alive. When any player is unable to Pass the Blame, the Blame Session ends. At this time, the players choose a Scapegoat.

One brief word of advice: If this game is an accepted part of your corporate culture, decide now to leave. Look for another job, or whatever it takes to get out. But do get out.

A Dis-empowering Belief System

Raj Persaud, author of The Motivated Mind, wrote in an article for Telegraph.co.uk, “Blaming what happens to you on external forces encourages a victim mentality that frequently leads to inactivity and self-loathing.” (“How the culture of blame has made victims of us all.”) When it’s okay to blame others for your problems, it’s ever more difficult to take on those problems, and ever more difficult to solve them. According to Persaud’s research, this has a number of effects:

As a result, placed in a Culture of Blame, enthusiastic and creative individuals may become:

Looking to the Past Versus Looking to the Future

Blame looks to the past, not to the future. Blame encourages people to do the minimum necessary, for fear of making a mistake, whereas we need them to take initiative.

Blame tells everyone not to try anything new, whereas we need creativity.

Blame is the sword of politics. Politically adept managers, when something goes wrong, are always able to point at another department and say, “It’s their fault.”

Blame is one of the components of worry-driven organizations. On this topic Jason Nocks wrote, “At no time are you supposed to actually accomplish any real work. The primary goal is effective worrying, a state of enlightened inactivity.”

The opposite is an organization that fosters a Culture of Examination. Compare some of the things you might hear in a Culture of Blame and a Culture of Examination:

In a Culture of Blame, here are some of the things you may encounter:

On the other hand, in a Culture of Examination, you’ll find:

Addicted to Blame

Blame dis-empowers. Yet we naturally resort to blame. And we teach our children to blame. And we teach others to blame. I’m constantly telling my kids, “I don’t care whose fault it is.” And you know what? They rarely even listen. The urge to blame is so deeply rooted in the human psyche.

For example, let’s say I walk into the livingroom and see a pile of dirty laundry on the floor. (Yes, this happens all the time.) And I say, “Can someone pick up this mess?”

My daughter, sitting on the couch, then replies, “My sister left it there.”

Did that answer my question? No. Do I care who left it there? No. All I care about is, “But who’s going to pick it up?” Did I teach her to say that? I hope not. The fact is that picking up the mess, no matter who does it, produces gratitude, special favors, and a very Happy Daddy. And I know that my daughters really enjoy Happy Daddy.

Why do they keep doing it? Because in the moment, it eases their fear. They think punishment is linked to blame. And they fear punishment. So they try to deflect the blame as a first resort. It’s a pernicious addiction. Getting out of the Culture of Blame requires a long-term perspective. And a long-term perspective requires getting out of the Culture of Blame.

But they’re catching on. Occasionally, I encounter enlightened moments in which they’re more interested in making a difference than in griping about things outside their control. And this is good. Because both my daughters are enthusiastic, creative kids. And my greatest fear is that they will feel pressure to conform, rather than to explore and to become all they can be.

Leadership and Blame

It is never effective for a leader to belittle or blame his constituents. It is never effective for a parent to belittle or blame his children. And it is never effective for a manager to belittle or blame his subordinates.

“But,” you may object, “there’s a difference between someone who has a disease and someone who makes a wrong choice. A sick person isn’t responsible for his disease. But an employee is responsible for his actions. We need to hold people responsible for their actions.”

Firstly, people have always tried to link a patient’s disease with some choice he made in the past. They’ve done so around the world, across cultures, throughout recorded history and into the present. We have a natural inclination to find a scapegoat, and we will employ whatever distorted logic serves that purpose. In most cases, that’s what happens with an employee. He makes a mistake, and it causes a crisis in the project. Maybe he did make a mistake. Is that a surprise? We’re humans, and humans make mistakes. Deal with it; move on. The problem is that we don’t deal with it. Any process is broken that permits a single mistake to jeopardize the entire project. So the project was doomed from the start. It would have been doomed no matter who was working in that position. Because all humans make mistakes. Most of the time, this is what we mean when we say “an incompetent employee is responsible for his performance.” In this instance, it is never effective to blame the employee.

But let’s leave that aside for a moment. Because it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether a person is morally responsible for his situation. If you judge him for it, he will deflect the blame onto someone else. And the Blame Game begins. As a leader, your job is to let him be accountable for his own future, but that requires a Culture of Examination. We have to feel safe enough to look truth straight in the eye if we ever hope to effect good. And as leaders, this has to be our first priority. Because the first job of a leader is to get things done. So if I want to be an effective leader, I must encourage examination and shun blame. It may not feel morally right. But this is my choice: Do I want to be right? Or do I want to do right?