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Communicate and set a good example to combat a culture of blame

Managers at Work
Rochester Business Journal
February 25, 2011

“I’m a brand-new manager who just got assigned to this department, and I have been very concerned about the negative work environment here. People are always pointing fingers at other people, complaining about what did or didn’t get done. … I really think this is what people call a toxic work environment. Any advice?”

  There is no question that blame is contagious and can poison the work environment. A recent study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology showed that individuals who are surrounded by those who blame others for their failures—either at work or at home—are more prone to repeat the behavior and blame people too. But when they do that, it is less about passing the buck than it is about protecting themselves and their own self-image, researchers said.

  In the workplace, blame takes a lot of forms, from a colleague taking credit for a project mostly completed by someone else to a team feeling it is being held responsible for problems that are not its fault. The anger and resentment build, projects and careers are derailed and people quit or get fired.

  “It is a default reaction to blame each other rather than working together to solve problems,” says Ben Dattner, an organizational psychologist and author of The Blame Game: How the Hidden Rules of Credit and Blame Determine Our Success or Failure.

  The more turbulence the organization is going through—internal or external problems, or the prospect of job cuts—the more people tend to play the blame game. Unfortunately, that is when workers can least afford to play the game, when trust, collaboration and innovation are needed most, Dattner says.

  At this point in your history with this company, however, it might not be wise to jump to conclusions about whether the workplace is “toxic,” he says.  Since you’re new, take the time to learn more about the culture, what people mean and do. “It’s always better first to ‘seek to understand’ before coming to a conclusion or acting and reacting,” he says.

  “If you were working in a friendly environment and you went into a culture that was more formal, you might assume that is negative. But it may be that people are more circumspect in how they approach each other,” Dattner says.

  He also suggested meeting with individuals in the department to ask how they describe the company, what the culture is, how it has changed and where they believe the company is in its history. Find out what people are worried about as they look to the future. That will help you understand these negative impressions, Dattner says.

  What you don’t want to do is create a “negative self-fulfilling prophecy” by writing off the culture as negative. “Instead, try to swim upstream and change it,” he says.

  To begin to break the cycle, the best thing is not to play the blame game yourself. “Try to avoid falling into negative patterns,” he says. “Use positive approaches rather than negative ones.”

  Help people get to know you and understand your style. You might have to put extra effort into communicating. “You could say, for example, ‘I asked you a lot of questions, and you might think that I’m skeptical about your capability or critical. I’m naturally curious, and I’ll tell you to expect a lot of questions from me. That does not mean that I’m blaming you,’” Dattner says.

  He draws a parallel to working in a foreign country. In that situation, you would build cross-cultural awareness, he says, and ensure there were no gaps in communication. “In a sense, going into a new organization is also cross-cultural. They don’t know you, and they don’t know your style. So you want to make sure you’re clear.”

  Ideally, you would find allies in this environment who could work with you to break the blame cycle or find a way to do some team building, to increase cohesion and commitment in your workplace, Dattner says. “It’s better if everybody collectively recognizes the challenges and issues and works together to fix it.”

  Researchers also suggest that one of the best ways to prevent the spread of blame is to keep your self-image in good condition and set an example for others. For example, you can take public ownership of a failure, rather than blaming others, and use your own mistakes as a learning experience, regardless of who was at fault.

  If you feel yourself getting caught up in the blame game, be sure to talk things out—especially if you’re starting to feel overwhelmed. Nathanael Fast, assistant professor in the department of management and organization at the University of Southern California, suggests that talking with someone who is supportive but not related to the situation is a wise investment. “That may help alleviate defensive behaviors and responses,” he says.

Managers at Work is a bimonthly column exploring the issues and challenges facing managers. Contact Kathleen Driscoll with questions or comments by phone at (585) 249-9295 or by e-mail at (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail

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