How to navigate ‘The Blame Game’

Marketplace Staff Jun 17, 2011

How to navigate ‘The Blame Game’

Marketplace Staff Jun 17, 2011

Tess Vigeland: Chances are, you’ve experienced at least one of the following at work: Your boss took credit for one of your ideas, a co-worker blamed you for something or maybe you even took credit for something you didn’t deserve.

In his new book “The Blame Game,” psychologist Ben Dattner says credit and blame at the office is no different from what you’ll find at the zoo.

Ben Dattner: People are hardwired by evolution, human evolution. And we’re actually not the only primates to blame others and to deny blame. In the book I talk about Coco the gorilla, who one night was playing with a toy cat and broke it. And the next morning signaled that her night-time attendant had been to blame for breaking the toy cat.

Vigeland: Well, let’s get really practical about this for our listeners. Is there a right way to place the blame, you know, an acceptable and professional way?

Dattner: Well, blame is really about the past, what either did or didn’t happen. And it’s looking for individuals who are to blame. And the thing about blame is it’s very personal, it’s very much about people and their personalities and their character. What I think enlightened organizations do is they take a broader view, and they think, “What is it about our systems? What is it about our culture? What is it about our collective approach to ascertaining about what did or didn’t happen or what went wrong or didn’t go wrong? What is it about that that’s either working for us or isn’t working for us?”

Vigeland: What if someone blames you for something that is not actually your fault. How do you protect yourself without seeming awfully defensive?

Dattner: Well, there’s a lot of subjectivity in blame. So sometimes we blame other people unfairly and sometimes we may perceive that we’re being blamed, when in fact, we’re not being blamed. One of the things I talk about in the book is about how the Millennial generation, which the Wall Street Journal called the “most praised generation,” excepts a lot of praise in the workplace.

Vigeland: These are the kids who got trophies whether they won or lost at team sports, right?

Dattner: Exactly, everyone gets the gold star. So, for a Millennial, they may perceive that they’re being blamed simply because they feel insufficiently credited. So, one person’s blame might be another person’s feedback.

Vigeland: Well, you know, you say that we have a choice in how we respond to credit and blame issues. And that actually some people are just better equipped to deal with that. What do they have that the rest of us perhaps can learn from?

Dattner: Well, it’s always easier and always more fun to talk about the negative cases. I’ll answer your question about the positive cases in a moment. In April 2011, an issue of Harvard Business Review, Robert Hogan and I wrote an article entitled “Can you handle failure?” where we talked about the types of people who are dysfunctional with respect to credit and blame. And unfortunately, about 70 percent of the American population falls into one or more of these categories: Extra punitive, where you blame other people unfairly and harshly; impunitive, where you either deny blame or deny your own role in what went wrong; and finally, intra-punitive, where you blame yourself too much and too harshly.

So, what great leaders do, as Jim Collins wrote in “Good to Great,” is they look out the window and in the mirror. They look in the mirror when things go wrong, and take personal responsibility and blame themselves, and they look out the window to credit other people. And that both simultaneously helps the leader learn, grow and adapt him or herself and also makes other people feel credited, valued and loyal. So Ursula Burns, for example, the CEO of Xerox has talked about how sharing credit has helped her get to the top, sharing credit for ideas that even she may have had. But she told the New York Times that she was advised early in her career by Paul Allaire to give other people credit, thereby expanding the pie.

What bad leaders do, and I can mention “Teflon” Tony Hayward of BP, is they deny blame or they blame other people and they actually diminish the social capital in their organizations.

Vigeland: That must be an awfully hard point to get to there, where you are looking in the mirror for blame and out the window for credit. Because, if it’s innate to monkeys to blame everybody else, then it probably is for us too, right?

Dattner: It is too. But I think what great leaders is they learn that it’s more important to be strategic and to operate in their self-interest, rather than to just be self-serving.

Vigeland: Alright, I’m going to start trying to look more in the mirror for blame and out the window for credit. Ben Dattner is a workplace consultant and an adjunct professor of psychology at New York University. His new book is “The Blame Game: How the Hidden Rules of Credit and Blame Determine Our Success or Failure.” Thanks so much for coming in.

Dattner: Thanks, good to be with you.

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