It’s tempting, isn’t it? Take credit when things go well, deflect blame when they don’t?
“It’s a natural human response,” says author and coach Ben Dattner. “But good leaders learn to avoid the temptation to blame others or hoard credit.”
“We all want to be recognized for our effort and accomplishments, and we resist being blamed when things don’t go right. This leads to habitual patterns of credit and blame at work,” explains Dattner, author of the new book The Blame Game. “The most successful leaders are able to see their role in the blame game, admit mistakes and focus on fixing rather than blaming.”
Most of us think that taking credit and blaming others are the side effects of the problems and personalities at work. But according to Dattner, the blame game is serious business — actually causing many of the problems you face at work.
“How you are credited and blamed — and how you as a leader deal with the dynamics of credit and blame around you – has enormous impact on the quality of your work and the success of the organization,” Dattner says.
The way credit and blame are handed out affects whether you learn and grow in your career or derail. Credit and blame help determine if team members compete for credit or scapegoat others. Negative cycles of blame and credit create organizational cultures that struggle with trust and collaboration – and undermine problem-solving, innovation and success.
What can you do to put the brakes on blaming and slow down the race for taking credit? Different strategies will work in different situations. Some of the suggestions from his book include:
- Take a step back. If you’re facing a “blame-thrower” or “credit-grabber” the first thing to do is pause. Dial down your own emotions and try to get some perspective on what is going on. It is all too easy to escalate and make the situation worse. Remind yourself that everyone has a natural tendency to cast blame; it is often a subconscious process; and the blame game might not be personal. What might be going on with the other person? What might be triggering your reaction?
- Be strategic. Even if you are working for a truly difficult boss or co-worker, you need to figure out productive responses. Fighting for credit and recognition could be self-defeating, while sharing credit may benefit you in the long run. If you push back too hard, you may be scapegoated or resented. A more subtle long-term approach may work better. You might reasonably share more credit that you think others deserve, opening the door to more sharing and less blaming over time.
- Articulate the issues. Put any emotionally charged experience into words. Talk to a friend outside of work, your partner or spouse, or a trusted colleague. This helps you gain perspective and distance and allows you to make more strategic decisions about your response.
- Develop your knowledge, skills and networks. The more high-functioning you are and the more indispensable your make yourself to your organization, the more likely it is that you will not be made the victim of undue blaming.
- Be a blame-savvy boss. If you are thoughtful, self-critical and fair in assigning credit and blame, you are likely to inspire deep appreciation and commitment from your staff. By setting the right example, you can instill in them an ethic of mutual support and collaborative problem-solving rather than one of defensiveness and finger-pointing.
- Focus on the future instead of the past. There is much to be learned from past events, but rehashing past actions or issues can be counterproductive if it focuses on assigning blame. Think about what needs to be done now and in the future. As a manager, peer or coach, be careful not to use feedback as a euphemism for blame.
- Get, and keep, people who don’t throw others under the bus. People with a balanced view of credit and blame make better leaders, teammates and subordinates. Hire people who seem self-aware, nuanced and open in discussing and evaluating their performance. If you manage managers, pay attention to how they attribute credit and blame to their staff. Consistently reinforce the message of shared accountability and collaboration.
“There is no question that the blame game can be painful for all of us at times — when we don’t receive the credit that we deserve, or when we are unfairly blamed for things that are clearly not our fault,” says Dattner. But we do have a choice in how we respond: “We can be stuck in a negative cycle of credit and blame, or change our approach so we can adapt, evolve and focus on the future.”