When situations go awry, we search for reasons why and direct, maybe even obvious, causes feel more rewarding than interconnected and complex ones. At times, we might apply an obvious cause to a complex situation. When we do, one of the easiest causes is someone else. Human infallibility is fickle. When we decide we’re right, all others are suddenly wrong with little evidence for the contrary. All others are suddenly blameworthy.
Situation Over Character
When we point at someone else, we play the absolved. We attempt to remove ourselves from all participation so that we can’t be the problem. Unfortunately, it also means then we’re not the solution. Subscribing to this mentality can quickly turn our blame into more than what it should be as blame is a prerequisite to judgement. We extrapolate our blame from the particular situation and apply it towards the person, unfairly and disproportionately characterizing them. News flash – being at fault doesn’t equal faulty character.
Let’s say you’re on a team overloaded with projects and another team member makes a crucial error that ultimately you’ll have to resolve. What can play out in our heads is this:
“Oh no, Lucy sent the wrong list of clients to the team to request information from.
I’m already so far behind on my projects and this is just another thing I have to fix.
How could she have been so careless? She can be so lazy!”
Unfairly characterizing is a justification for your own blame. Lucy is lazy and therefore, it wouldn’t be out of character for her to mess up like this. This way, when you dole out blame, you believe it to be just and fair.
You’ve heard that blaming isn’t kind and that “it’s no ones fault.” There are few circumstances where that is fact. Natural disasters for example, but at best it is a small gesture people say when something does in fact go wrong to make us feel better. In reality, across everything that could go wrong, how often is truly no one at fault? A miscommunication between co-workers leads to fire drills. A disagreement between loved ones feels like a tornado tore through the house. In both situations, there is fault to be had.
Blame though, can be productive with the proper mindset. It can actually strengthen relationships, provide teams clarity of roles, and reverse assumptions. Traditionally we think of blame as rude and demoralizing and on the receiving end, it’s belittling and upsetting. It’s tough to not feel a tinge of regret, even when you don’t care too much for the accuser. The path towards better blame is two-fold.
Division of Blame
To begin with, blame becomes manageable if it is split. I recently heard a story of a group of co-workers that had reached the boiling point on a situation where no one seemed to be listening or working to improve. It culminated in a large meeting that was honest, emotional, and necessary for them to ever move forward. While I was listening to them recount the past events, from my view, it seemed as though all of the blame was being put towards one individual. They weren’t being direct in their words, “It was Mark’s fault,” but instead it came through as should haves.
“Mark should have done this.”
“Mark should have told us earlier.”
In these situations, I find it an incredible oversight to put all the blame in one basket. The entire fallout of a team is not on the shoulders of Mark. He likely played a major role but I’d venture not 100%. What if instead we assign Mark 60% of the blame so as to ensure he remains the majority but now, there is opportunity across the whole team.
Most importantly, there is opportunity for yourself. How much is on me? 20%? 30%? We’re generally resistant to blame ourselves as we view it as an all or nothing but you’ll find it more palatable to blame yourself for only a fraction of the situation.
Party of Two
Let’s for a moment step outside of a team dynamic and apply splitting blame within a relationship of two where you’re forced to bear some blame. Keep in mind this isn’t an exercise of self-loathing but self-awareness and perception. Perceptions of just how much percentage one owns as your estimate might be very different than theirs. This example happened not too ago between my wife and I…
Normally, I handle the bills but the date slipped past. Prior to that date, while my wife was re-organizing, she moved this particular bill to another area in the house. Since I was looking in the normal location for bills, this could have attributed to my forgetfulness. During our conversation, I claimed 80% blame. My defense was the remaining was hers on account of the relocation. From my wife’s point of view or, based on her perception, she believes it should be 95/5% split.
The difference? She remembers telling me that she did in fact move the bill. I clearly forgot that tidbit as well and accepted her proposal. The other 5% that was hers? We both know I have a tendency of a one-track mind. Great for focusing, so long as I’m focusing on the right things. When she told me, I was distracted by my own task at hand. Rather than assuming I heard and understood, she could have taken the extra time to confirm.
A Cautionary Tale
A note in language. Relationships are unique and need to be handled as such. Actually conferring different percentages of blame might be too forthcoming. Between my wife and I it works. The words and actions are meaningful but the tone of percentages can be playful banter. This isn’t going to work the same in teams. The goal of assigning percentages is to create space for self-awareness meaning it can be done without saying a word.
Don’t start splitting blame if not everyone is aware of the intent. It will backfire and people will get defensive and argumentative. Having this type of candid conversation requires each person to be willing to accept and own their part and be able to view it as solutions-based conversation, not a scapegoat from their own involvement.
From Blame to Ownership
As revealing as it is to split the blame positively, the word still has its negative connotation and can feel like an attack even if it only for a small percentage. So instead of looking around the room and placing blame, let’s place ownership. Mark owned doing what he was supposed to. Mark owned telling his team earlier. How much ownership can I take for the missed bill?
Here’s the second part of better blame (ownership). The admission of it. How do we get to a place where no one has to pry ownership out of others but for each person to be forthcoming with it? As the leader of a team, it is our responsibility to create an environment where people feel safe enough to present such admissions. To show you’re serious in that effort, take the first step. How would our story of Mark been different if it were his own admission of ownership served with a side of opportunity?
“I should have done this. I’ll remember to do so going forward but I might need reminders.”
“I should have told everyone sooner. How best does everyone want this to be communicated?”
After hearing admissions like this, the team is going to feel more confident in the future knowing that there are no consequences to admitting ownership and in fact it is expected. From our story, Mark still holds majority ownership but who else at the table owned a piece? If Mark owned keeping everyone involved but missed the mark, did anyone ask? Or did everyone just assume things were happening predicated on no news is good news. Would Mark had gladly given up the information if one person posed the question?
Before you rebuttal with “It’s not my job to do his,” I understand how you feel, I’m guilty of it too, and you’re right in the broad sense. However, is it not your job to ask or speak up for the things you want and need that directly impact you? There is shared space between someone else’s responsibility and your responsibility. That space is where blame turns to ownership.
Simon Sinek has said before “A leader should not take credit when things go right if they are not willing to accept responsibility when things go wrong.” When it comes to ownership, the same principle applies. A leader should not take ownership when things go right if they are not willing to accept ownership when things go wrong. This means being the first to openly admit it. This means guiding the team through “What could we have done better?” to better split up ownership. This means going forth and owning it.