Saturday 20 April 2013

The buck stops here! Curbing the blame game at work

Have you ever attended a meeting (or been party to a discussion) where an individual is outlining his or her inability to deliver on an activity or explaining a negative outcome by shifting the responsibility or blaming other persons for their inability to deliver on the expected outcome.

This activity in simple terms is ‘passing the buck’ or the blame game; a phenomenon that is detrimental to group dynamics and erodes employee perception of organisational justice and fairness [Fairness is often of central interest to organisations because the implications of perceptions of injustice can impact job attitudes and behaviours at work.]

Just step back and think about that last meeting where you heard someone state forcefully that they were unable to deliver on their commitment(s) because XYZ (usually mentioned by name!) did not complete or keep their side of the bargain. This strategy is usually undertaken where the ‘buck passer’ (my own term for the person playing the blame game!) finds themselves in a bind and rather than explain the situation in a rational manner decides that a full frontal assault on the ‘buck passee’ (another term I coined for the unprepared recipient of the blame!) is the right approach as the whiff of martyrdom and indignation will ensure that the heat moves from the ‘buck passer’ to the ‘buck passee’!

Typically, the ‘buck passer’ is trying to preserve their self-image (
the idea, conception, or mental image one has of oneself) and use blame to deflect to others rather than admit the painful truth that they were also party to the negative outcome that was now being justified or explained.

Even after nearly two decades in the ‘corporate jungle’ I am still taken aback with the ferocity with which the ‘blame game’ gets played out by the
Quagmire animals of this jungle! I watch in amazement as the team sinks deeper into the proverbial quagmire of finger pointing and negativity! Surprisingly blaming others is a contagious phenomenon and research has found that what starts with one blame usually leads to a down-ward spiral of blame making and ultimately everyone is worse off!

It requires tremendous leadership and organisational maturity to ensure that respect for individual and team dynamics are not sacrificed while the blame game is being played out! I am not arguing that if someone has done any wrong that we should ignore the same or stop from highlighting inefficiency on the part of an individual. The point I am focusing on is the style with which blame is apportioned and the negative impact on job attitudes it has.

I have observed that those groups or leaders that allow the blame game in the ‘Corporate Olympics’ are ensuring that employees do not feel safe in making mistakes or taking calculated risk(s).

I once asked a senior sales manager for assistance in curbing sales tendency to apportion blame on the sales operations team (supporting the sales teams) in a demeaning manner. His response was an eye opener -- “We need creative tension in the team and need everyone to deliver on their commitment. Outcomes are all that matter and sales is the function paying everyone’s salaries.”

I am not going to comment on this as it could be argued that these lines are about ensuring accountability. On surface the culture of ‘passing the buck’ may appear to be critical to develop accountability (to ensure that people deliver on their commitments and obligations) but my professional guidance is that rather than creating accountability by apportioning blame it is more important to create psychological safety (a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking and team members feel accepted & respected) as a core value. This is one of the most critical organisational tasks of a manager. However, look around us and we will be hard-pressed to see many managers who seem to understand the trade-off involved in creating psychological safety or even how to create/maintain it! [And if a manager gets this right then he has earned the title of leader!]‘Passing the buck’ should not be allowed to spread like a contagion nor encouraged. So here is some simple advice on becoming a strong ‘Olympian’to survive the ‘blame game’.

 Advice for the ‘buck passer’

A ‘buck passer’ fails to realise that for one finger that they raise there are three fingers pointing back at them! Fixing the ‘buck passer’ would require some element of self-realisation, which is beyond this blog.
Pointing Finger
For those reading this and want to avoid becoming the proverbial ‘buck passer’ make sure that you don’t fall into the trap of deflecting blame to others for your mistake. Write this on a piece of paper and stick it in your cubicle at work – ‘Help more, judge less.’

Where the blame game has to be played out then plat it meaningfully, humanely and constructively. Yes, we need to expose people but not at the expense of their dignity or by publicly humiliating them. An ex-boss of mine was amazing on this front as his motto was simple --
praise publicly but blame gently in private.

Here is a simple example of how language can be used to defuse a situation. Rather than being blunt or direct by saying “Despite multiple follow-ups and emails Deepak failed to get us the information that we required to generate the quote to the customer!” you can aim to convey the same message in a different way “Deepak has had challenges in providing the information we need to generate the quote to the customer. Deepak when do you think we can close this out?”

Advice for the ‘buck passee’

Don’t be surprised when this happens to you. Expect human beings to act like human beings. When faced with a circumstance where the ball has been lobbed into your court, use a cool calm head and lob the ball back! Acknowledge your error or mistake. Take ownership. Do not make the mistake of becoming a ‘buck passer’ i.e. consider moving the burden to someone else. Articulate your position and plans to recover (if possible). You have to be mentally strong at that point and not lash at others. Use language that brings people to your rescue and help with the recovery plan (if any). The key word here is recovery and focusing on the next steps!

Do not let others deflect the seriousness of a debate or discussion by using the blame game or changing the context of the discussion (for example “I would not have failed if XYZ had not failed in the first instance”). Stop whiners in their tracks by using words like “We failed because we did not do something or did not see something.” Using ‘We’ is very cathartic.

Advice for the manager

The first thing that a manager can do to improve the work environment is to stand up and admit their own mistakes publicly. Where I saw a manager undertake open and visible actions to stop the blame game the result was that they rose in the eyes of their followers (implying some element of becoming a leader!).

Identifying the root cause of a failure requires mature and deft questioning but most leaders are impatient and rather than interrogate an issue conscientiously they will allow the blame game to substitute for that interrogation.

Another subtle reason for why people engage in the blame game is that they are fearful that they alone will face the punishment and hence they attempt to divert the punishment or have it spread out amongst others. Leaders must encourage people to speak up without fear of reproach. Allowing people to make mistakes and learn from their mistakes is the best way to diffuse the ability of a ‘buck passer’ to inflict damage to morale and team spirit. One of the reasons why a leader gets the
label of fair is based on how they referee the blame game! Bringing the focus back to team work and group outcomes is critical.

As a leader, seek out egoists in your organisations as they are typically the ones who need to be checked. And then check them! For me this is a critical element of being
an authentic leader.And finally, this should be your motto as a manager – ‘The buck stops here’.
Buck stop here
This is a critical skill to ensure that the correct tone is set and accountability made visible. True leaders that I have admired focused on ensuring that the blame game was nipped in the bud and they knew that the 'blame game' might not start with them but it would surely end with them!

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