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How to Handle the Blame Game in the Workplace

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Sometimes it's necessary to assign blame in the workplace, such as situations in which someone isn't taking the job seriously. However it's usually more important to discuss what went wrong so workers can avoid making the same mistakes again. There are times when these conversations slide away from what can be improved and into the territory of blame. Blame is often counterproductive as it undermines workplace relationships and impedes change.


Discussions about mistakes become unproductive when they turn into blaming sessions. Instead of listening, everyone becomes defensive and less forthcoming with information that may get them in even more trouble. You know the conversation has wandered off-track when someone starts working to prove someone else acted wrongly and the focus shifts to accusations. Some companies have a corporate culture that regularly includes finger-pointing. Ben Dattner, the author of "The Blame Game: How Hidden Rules of Credit and Blame Determine Our Success or Failure" told a "Wall Street Journal" interviewer that such companies should replace that culture of blaming with problem solving. "...Instead of focusing on what went wrong, companies should focus on how to make it work next time. Focus on the future," Dattner told "The Wall Street Journal." Companies that focus on blame make their employees afraid to take risks and try new techniques. This can result in missed opportunities for growth because people hide behind corporate rules and regulations.

Making a Bad Situation Worse

Although it may be natural to become defensive, especially if your boss is launching an aggressive or loud verbal attack, try to remain calm. The worst reaction you can have is to become defensive. Instead, use another tactic to broaden his perspective on what actually happened. When it's your turn to speak, start out by saying "here's what I could have done better." Follow that with a summary of what happened and how you could have acted differently. That way, instead of disagreeing with your accuser, you are giving a more balanced view of what happened. It's a chance to point out the direct or indirect part that you played in what happened and to gently correct any misinformation that may have reached your boss.

When You Didn't Do It

Sometimes you may be blamed for something you didn't do. You may be tempted to take one for the team and accept the blame for something someone else did. Resist that temptation. By wrongfully accepting the blame, you may have a grateful co-worker or two but others may see it as a strictly political move and distrust your motives. It's also self-defeating to accept the blame for something you didn't do, especially if it cost the company money or a client. The move may haunt you during a performance review or even contribute to losing your job at some later point.

Managing Emotions

Assigning blame causes negative emotions for both the blamer and the one being blamed. If you are pointing the finger at another employee, you may be acting out of fear, anger or desperation to avoid responsibility. If you're being blamed by someone, you may feel embarrassed, afraid, angry and even worried about your reputation. As Robert Bacal, author of "Performance Management" and "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Dealing with Difficult Employees," wrote in a recent article for Work 911, the process of assigning blame has less to do with preventing similar problems in the future so much as it does offloading responsibility and causing negative feelings. If you have to handle a situation at work and don't want it to devolve into a blame game, Bacal recommends sticking to factual statements and the problem solving process: Discuss the goal, collect the facts to help understand what happened, identify the source of the delay or problem, come up with a way to deal with the problem and then take time to assess if the proposed strategy will work.


Darlene Peer has been writing, editing and proofreading for more than 10 years. Peer has written for magazines and contributed to a number of books. She has worked in various fields, from marketing to business analysis. Peer received her Bachelor of Arts in English from York University.

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