The Dangerous Slippery Slope of Blame

2021 has been an especially trying year for all. Along with the exhaustion, I’ve noticed a general uptick in blaming. (I am referring to misplaced, short-sighted and exaggerated blame – not reasonably expressed responses to wrongdoing.)

How about you? Has the stress and fatigue of 2020-21 challenges led you to blame colleagues for undesired outcomes more than you used to? Have you inadvertently relinquished your agency, or gotten lazy when diagnosing problems?

I recently watched a strong attachment to “blamey” beliefs build up so much in one work relationship that it destroyed the capacity for constructive recovery from disagreement. Even some of the most capable, grounded leaders I know — who generally maintain their sense of responsibility for past actions and agency over future ones – are tempted to blame a bit more often these days. This likely happens because blame demands less patience and energy than constructive alternatives.

I describe unchecked blame as a “slippery slope” because it is one dimensional, rigid, and emotionally unintelligent; it does not allow space for a course correction. I once wrote a column about trust as a “super power” available to all of us to enhance performance. Blame is the antithesis of trust. When we promote a “blamey” explanation for a problem, we erode trust, thereby closing the door on our best tools for problem-solving: teamwork, learning, personal accountability, and experimentation.

This slippery slope can play out even when our blamey beliefs are not explicitly communicated. And when blame is verbally directed at us, as you may have experienced, we start to shut down on the receiving end as well, closing off our best assets.

Recall your own recent work-related frustrations. What is your impact on the size and damage of the wake that follows a misunderstanding, mistake or bad luck? How well do you resist the temptation to use blame for convenience and personal protection?

When I find myself on that slippery slope, I try (with uneven results) to sharpen my thinking. First, I look for additional contributing factors to a frustrating situation, beyond the intentions and actions of my potential “blame-ee”. I sometimes seek a second opinion. Then I take stock of my own role – past, present, and future – to get myself back in constructive partner mode. Resisting the blame game is not the easiest path in the short run, but the long-term payoff in terms of teamwork and resilience is absolutely worth it! Unmanaged blame, in contrast, will continually erode trust and performance – organizationally, inter-personally and individually.