Blame: The Toxic Team Killer on the Loose

January 15, 2019 • 5 minute read • by Saeed


“Average people place blame, exceptional people take responsibility.”

-Craig Valentine

Toxic work environments, that is to say, those that feature narcissistic leadership, poor communication, high turnover, absenteeism, lack of trust, lack of accountability and a lack of employee engagement, are the most rife for blame-ridden interactions.

You know that blame has infiltrated your team (or worse your psyche) when there is a general lack of accountability, avoidance of responsibility, lack of commitment to excellence, and an environment where everyone seems to be out for themselves. When something goes wrong, the first question often posed is: “Whose fault is it?”

Blame is the killer of innovation and creativity. It is a death sentence for a culture of learning and unless it is addressed at its roots, it becomes a pathogen that erodes motivation, collaboration, engagement and productivity.

Blame, in short, costs money.

It has been empirically proven that positive work environments, absent of blame, increase productivity. In contrast, when people work in an atmosphere of blame, they expend their productive energy on covering up their errors, avoiding accountability and hiding their real concerns. A lack of accountability can be deadly to team accountability and to our personal efforts to fulfill our potential.

Accountability emphasizes keeping agreements and commitments in an environment of mutual respect. Blaming, in contrast, is an emotional process that discredits and shuts down the blamed. Where accountability leads to inquiry, learning and improvement; blame short circuits learning, makes inquiry difficult and reduces the chances of getting to the real root of a problem.

The qualities of blame are judgment, anger, fear, punishment, and self-righteousness. The qualities of accountability, on the other hand, are respect, trust, inquiry, moderation, curiosity, and mutuality.

Why do people blame?

Since the dawn of civilization we’ve assigned unseen causes to effects that we can’t explain.

When we are threatened, we often have what is known as the Fight or Flight response. Our bodies are very adept at letting us know there’s a “danger” that needs to be addressed, so we need to pay attention. This primes our system to move our attention outside. There is a certain sense to this. After all, we might not escape danger if we can’t take our focus off our internal world of thoughts, feeling and sensations.  When fight or flight dynamics enter the realm of interpersonal relationships it looks like blame.

Blame provides some immediate relief and a sense of having solved a problem. Blame is like a sugar high – it produces a brief spike in satisfaction and then a crash. It doesn’t serve the system’s long-term needs and can actually prevent it from functioning effectively. Like sugar, blame can also be addictive, because it makes us feel powerful (having avoided the danger) and keeps us from having to examine our own role in a situation. Blame has its foundations in fear and insecurity and works cyclically by causing more fear and insecurity.

How to shift from blame to accountability:

There are a few principles to remember before your knee-jerk reaction of fault-finding and assigning blame:

  • Shift from blame to accountability:

Developing a strong culture of transparency and accountability will focus your team’s efforts where they belong: on taking individual responsibility for their actions.

  • Become self aware:

Your current attitude, expectations, and beliefs have a powerful effect on thought, emotion, and ultimately behavior.

  • Don’t assume the worst:

Everyone is always doing as well as they can within their personal limitations, their personal history, what they know and don’t know and what they’re feeling in that moment.

  • Failure is not the enemy:

Everyone makes mistakes, and sometimes these mistakes are harmful to the team’s efforts. Every mistake contains a lesson.

  • Proactive communication is key:

Accountability comes from clear expectations, follow-through on commitments, and ongoing conversations, to review both explicit and tacit agreements in order to verify shared understanding.

  • Look at the part you played:

Even if, in your mind, you are 99% right and your partner is 99% wrong, it’s your job to look at the 1% you did that was harmful or unhealthy.

 The Coach Approach

If you find yourself confounded by the blame game, before you take out the blame thrower, take the coach approach. Bring your complaints about someone else to a third person to get coaching on how to raise your concerns.

Valuable questions from the coach include:

  • Tell me about the situation.
  • What results do you want?
  • What’s another way of explaining the other person’s actions?
  • How might the other person describe the situation?
  • What was your role in creating the situation?
  • What requests or complaints do you need to bring to the other person?
  • How will you state them in order to get the results you want?
  • What do you think your learning is in this situation?

 A final word…

Finally, when we give responsibility for our feelings and actions away to others, we are left progressively more weak and powerless people. When we stop blaming others we begin to take responsibility for our emotional states. It’s then that we really begin to have choices. When we continue to be habitually sucked into the blame game, we drive erode our relationships. Developing accountability takes courage and the willingness to learn new ways of thinking and acting.

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©2019 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A.

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