Breaking Down Blame: How Finding Fault May Actually Be Hurting Team Accountability

by Bill Swift on February 25, 2019

in Employee Engagement

Pointing fingers

There is a local healthcare facility we know of that has been training all of their managers in Collaborative Problem Solving – a popular model for helping groups understand and solve problems. One of the basic tenants of Collaborative Problem Solving (that can be a struggle for many managers) is that people will always do their best when they can. Wait! Can this really be true of all your employees? That they are doing their best – we just need to “set them up for success.”

Can’t we just blame them for being unmotivated?

Our ability to blame others is, for most of us, reflexive, natural, and, for the most part, counterproductive. Of course we need to get to root causes when something goes wrong and we should establish clear ownership for projects and deliverables. Management 101. And many of us are under deadlines to get stuff done and personnel issues can distract us from the real work. Do we really have time to get philosophical about our employee’s positive intent? Are these people REALLY trying to do their best?

Which path do you choose? Blame or collaboration.

Turns out, blaming gets us all locked up, frozen, and prevents fluid and effective problem solving. We may not even need to express out loud the blame we want to assign for us to have a negative impact on getting to “better.” Employees can smell the attitudes we have toward them a mile away. When we deal with the dynamics of blame there are too many circumstances where we lead ourselves into a teamwork dead end.

Getting rid of blame is not a sugar coating on workplace collaboration, but rather a more business-like approach that, both short and long term, gets us better team results. Of course we must outline for our employees and teams the gaps that exist between expectations and true performance. The core question is, are we treating them as capable individuals or as objects? It’s not a problem with describing these gaps, it is how we do it.

The next time you jump to blame (that place where you have it all together and someone else does not), give some consideration to these potential traps:

  • Blame is easy. Building a culture of accountability, in contrast, takes a bit more work, some self-inspection and some guts, but is much more effective in the long run.
  • Blame is ultimately self-serving. Sure, we get things “set straight”: someone is right and someone else wrong. It allows me to categorize my people. Does this move our work forward? Does this set up the team for future success?
  • Blame rarely solves problems. It gets us dug into our world view and invites others to dig in as well.
  • Blame lets me off the hook for the part I have played as problems emerge. Did I establish crystal clear expectations? Did I give authority and empowerment? Did I check in on progress? Did I provide training? Support? Did I seek to understand, then be understood?
  • Blaming, paradoxically, justifies an expectation that no one (you or your employees) will improve. We often just lock in to assigned negative roles. Am I truly inviting others to look for improvement?

Here’s another tough philosophy to embrace: some of the consultants we work with insist that everything employees do is logical and, from the employee’s standpoint, rational. Under this mindset, there is no “Stupid” or “Lazy” or (fill in your favorite limiting label here). When practicing this mindset, blame doesn’t have a place. Employees are simply doing what makes sense to them. Our work as leaders, then, is to honestly take stock of our approaches, systems and communication. And the starting point is understanding how our employees are seeing the world.

In my executive coaching sessions I find that many managers initially resist, sometimes with all of their being, this kind of approach. We fall in love with being right, justified, and then let down by our employees as opposed to looking at patterns and our own attitudes. The business case behind giving up blame often takes hold, however, when it becomes clear that there are more effective ways to manage.

It is unlikely that any of us will become entirely free of blaming others. It sometimes takes a nudge from a trusted coworker to get me back on the effectiveness train.

We love to see the teams that have developed a culture of positive accountability so that, top to bottom, everyone is willing to own their successes and failures. Teams like this have built trust and commitment to the point that no one person is responsible for “managing” accountability. The team takes an honest inventory, without blame, on both the task and trust levels of operation.

Task level: how stuff got done. Trust level: how we treated each other as we did it.

We would love to hear your stories of how you have overcome blame in your teams while encouraging positive accountability. You can get in touch at

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