The Blame Game: Research Shows It Doesn’t Work
By Sheila Gibbons Hiebert
Communication Research Associates, Inc.
Here we are in another political season, where voters are being whipsawed by candidates’ competing visions, competing facts and rising voices. The red-hot rhetoric at all levels of politics has people on edge. Indignation and finger-pointing get attention, certainly, but do they change minds? Get results? Motivate people? Research suggests otherwise.
Worse, what we’re learning is that if leaders routinely blame others, the practice of blaming spreads like the flu. Transferred to a business environment, that creates a culture of fear that smothers innovation and productivity and prevents success.
A classic study on how blaming becomes contagious was undertaken by Nathanael J. Fast, an assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, and Larissa Tiedens, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford. They conducted four different experiments in 2009 and found that publicly blaming others dramatically increases the likelihood that the practice will become viral.
The reason: blame spreads quickly because it triggers the perception that one’s self-image is under assault and must be protected,Â they found. Individuals who are fearful of being blamed for something become less willing to take risks, are less innovative or creative, and are less likely to learn from their mistakes. Blaming also increases when people feel their jobs are at risk.
Not surprisingly, political actors figured in a portion of Fast and Tiedens research. In one experiment, half of the participants were asked to read a newspaper article about then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, in which he was quoted blaming special-interest groups for the controversial special election he called in 2005. Voters turned down all four of the propositions he backed, and the state was out $250 million, the cost of the special ballot. A second group read an article in which the governor took full responsibility for the failure. Those who read about the governor blaming others for his proposals’ defeat were more likely to blame others for their own, unrelated shortcomings, compared with those who read about Schwarzenegger taking responsibility for the outcome.
Fast and Tiedens also discussed typical personality characteristics of persons who tend to be blamers. They identified President Richard M. Nixon as a prominent example of an individual hyper-protective of his image, evading responsibility for his decisions and allowing others to take the fall for him, never being at fault. They concluded that the culture of blaming others and avoiding accountability led to disastrous decision-making that brought down Nixon’s administration.
Most people in today’s workforce probably have had experience with managers and co-workers who deflect blame onto others, both inside and outside their organizations. With some coaching, executives and supervisors who want to improve others’ behavior will find that a little humility and consideration for feelings goes a long way. Fast and Tiedens found that managers who make a point of acknowledging their own mistakes make their subordinates feel more confident about trying new things because they’re less worried that they’ll be punished for a mistake or failure. They advise that criticism be offered privately; praise, publicly.
In addition to using verbal restraint, managers should take an extra look at language they use and statements they make in interoffice memos, performance reviews, project reports, and especially emails and texts, whose arms-length nature has made it easier for people to be harsh without having to deliver their comments face-to-face. The written word has a lot of power, so unbridled criticism in writing can have devastating impact.
Clear, consistent communication within teams and departments, and with constituencies outside the organization, short-circuits blaming, eases tensions and moves work forward. Working with an experienced communication professional can help organizational leaders make these adjustments in substance and style.
In politics, sadly, we’ve come to take bruising rhetoric nearly in stride. We’re often distressed and even offended by it, but resigned to it. But engaging in a high-decibel blame game at work is risky business. Ultimately, blamers create circumstances that reduce their effectiveness and that of the people around them. It’s tough to practice civility in a society that’s under stress of all kinds. But, if we don’t, we and the organizations for which we work will pay a steep price. Because words, and the consequences they produce, really do matter.