It's a question that even the best managers find challenging: How do you get employees to focus on problem-solving and positive results rather than assigning blame when things go wrong? Research shows that people tend to take credit when things go right and to blame others when things go wrong. These instincts are typically most intense when the stakes are high and times are tough, says Ben Dattner, author of The Blame Game: How the Hidden Rules of Credit and Blame Determine Our Success or Failure

Manager Makeover: Turning around a "blame" culture

It's a question that even the best managers find challenging: How do you get employees to focus on problem-solving and positive results rather than assigning blame when things go wrong? Research shows that people tend to take credit when things go right and to blame others when things go wrong. These instincts are typically most intense when the stakes are high and times are tough, says Ben Dattner, author of The Blame Game: How the Hidden Rules of Credit and Blame Determine Our Success or Failure.

 

Blame erodes morale, productivity and well-being

Research shows that blame erodes morale, slows progress and undermines relationships with customers, clients, vendors and employees. Individuals and teams that blame one another when mistakes happen get stuck at precisely the time when people most need to pull together to meet a challenge or fix a problem. Fostering accountability is vital to your success as a manager and to individual and group productivity.

Characteristics of accountable teams
The way to break the cycle of blame is to foster a culture of accountability. On accountable teams, people:

  • Take responsibility for their actions
  • Are encouraged to take appropriate risks
  • Accept and "own" their mistakes
  • Receive credit, individually and as a team, when they have earned it

Accountable teams ask: What can we learn from this experience? What should we do differently next time?

 

Helping your team move from blame to accountability

Managers play a key role in moving teams from a culture of blame to one of accountability. Here are four tips:

  • Show accountability in your own work. Be aware of your mistakes. "Own" the results of your decisions, whether or not they led to the results you had hoped. Let your team see you taking proactive steps to keeping mistakes from happening again. Remember that experts agree that how you handle a mistake matters far more than the mistake itself.
  • Have a zero tolerance policy for blaming behavior. Tell people that when things go wrong, you want them to bring you solutions, not blame or excuses.
  • Shift the focus of unproductive conversations to productive problem-solving. Ask people to tell you how they could have improved an outcome, not what someone else did "wrong." Coach them toward accepting responsibility. Instead of solving people's problems for them, "help them take accountability for themselves" and achieve the results you expect them to deliver, advise Roger Connors, Tom Smith, and Craig Hickman, authors of The Oz Principle: Getting Results Through Individual and Organizational Accountability.
  • Encourage shared responsibility. When you can, give people the opportunity to work on cross-functional teams that involve shared responsibility and accountability for results. This approach "can help bring people together and end intergroup recrimination and blame," Dattner says, because it shifts the focus from the performance of an individual to the performance of a team.

How managers handle credit and blame is contagious. If you show unfairness, "it can quickly have devastating and widespread effects throughout the workplace," Dattner says. At the same time, if you manage credit and blame skillfully, it can have a wealth of positive effects for you, your team, and your organization.