It’s human instinct to look for an external source to blame when things go wrong, particularly in the workplace. In a moment of panic, the stress and repercussions of taking responsibility for a mistake can induce a slew of both psychological and physical side effects. Research even indicates that in addition to providing some momentary relief, throwing blame around can have a contagious appeal.
Any personal benefit afforded by blaming a coworker or manager, however, is not worth the long-term detriments that in-office blaming can have on the corporate environment. Instead, employees of all levels should aim to recognize when to take responsibility for mistakes and how it can actually further their career.
Why Workers Blame
In reality, blaming in the workplace is not all that different from the responsibility-shirking that most people have done at least occasionally throughout their lives. Why are people so eager to avoid taking responsibility for their mistakes? Although logically speaking, it may seem easiest to apologize, compensate for damages, and move on, business missteps can be more intricate and complicated than errors made in other areas of life.
Offending a close friend or even an acquaintance, for instance, can be easier to manage than stressing a business relationship. The affronted individual who knows the offender well may be able to overlook the incident as an outlying occurrence or momentary lapse of judgment because the two people have a standing rapport.
Imagine, however, if a similar mistake took place during a business-related conversation or transaction with someone whom the employee had limited prior correspondence. It could be easier for the worker to be judged solely on that incident. Understanding the higher stakes of making such mistakes could influence a workers’ desire to seek a means of mitigating responsibility when things go wrong. Blaming is a particularly common reaction when situations could result in loss of compensation, respect, or even employment.
Two researchers from the University of Southern California and Stanford University, respectively, decided to delve deeper into questions about why blame can spread like wildfire in the workplace. According to the scientists, throwing blame around is a common defense mechanism that increases as the stakes go up.
“Blaming is common when people are worried about their safety in an organization,” said Larissa Tiedens, an organizational behavior professor at Stanford. “There is likely to be more blaming going on when people feel like their jobs are threatened.”
The Detriments of Blaming
Blaming’s prevalence in the workplace, however, doesn’t mean it’s an effective business strategy. On the other hand, said Nathanael Fast, the study’s other lead researcher, blame creates a “culture of fear,” which can lead to “a host of negative consequences” for companies as well as individual employees. In their experiments, Tiedens and Fast found that workers who were exposed to blaming in a professional setting were more likely to propagate the behavior themselves.
Ending the Blame Game
According to the researchers, although blame spreads quickly, it can and should be halted in order to promote a healthy workplace environment. Staff training and development should highlight the benefits of taking responsibility for personal actions, even when they engender less-than-positive effects.
As is true of many behaviors, a company’s upper-level staff is responsible for leading by example. If management shows a tendency to throw blame around for business errors, employees are likely to follow suit. For this reason, leadership training should emphasize the importance of encouraging workers by their own actions to take responsibility for actions, regardless of consequence. Instead of playing the blame game, management can set an example of how to mitigate potential damage and effective ways of controlling challenging situations.