The Blame Game

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Summary:
No one likes to be blamed, so why do we blame each other in the first place? What place does it have in our relationships, and how does it affect our problem-solving abilities? Esther Derby uses a personal experience with customer disservice to highlight our attraction to assigning blame and how it delays us from reaching solutions.

Not long ago, I took my dog to the boarding kennel as I was leaving for a business trip. Usually she stays at home, but this time my husband was going to be out of town, too.

"Can I help you?" the receptionist asked. "I'm here to drop Pudge off for boarding," I replied, expecting I'd spend minutes to sign the papers, give Pudge a goodbye pat, and head to the airport.

The receptionist pulled up a computer screen and examined it. Then she looked a paper file. "You're not supposed to be here today. Your reservation is for next week on the 28th," she declared.

Oh, crap, I thought. This could be a real problem. The first thing to do is determine whether they can fit her in. If not, I need to start making phone calls right away.

"Oh, dear," I said out loud. "That's odd. I was sure I made the reservation for today. Is there room to board Pudge for next three days?"

"You're wrong," the receptionist asserted. "Your reservation is for the 28th."

Let's skip the fact that this exchange is not a stellar example of customer service. What was really interesting to me was that the receptionist insisted on telling me I was wrong, even in the face of the evidence that I was there and had a plane to catch. I wasn't particularly interested in assigning blame; I wanted to move on to Plan B if I needed to, make sure my dog would be cared for, and make my flight.

What Is Blame
The dictionary definition of "blame" is to find fault with or hold responsible. There certainly are times when people in organizations need to hold people responsible for when their actions cause problems. From a psychological perspective, though, blame is a defense mechanism. It makes the blamer feel powerful by making the person being blamed feel small. But blaming a person (or a system) for a problem gets in the way of solving a problem.

The High Price of Blame
When blame is the default behavior in an organization, bad things happen.

People withhold information because the fear how they'll be treated when they bring up problems. That makes it harder for anyone to actually solve problems. Of course, problems can't hide forever. When the information finally comes out, the problems are usually bigger and the options to solve them fewer.

People invest energy making sure that they won't be blamed when a problem arises (as problems inevitably do). That leads to paper trails, positioning, and creating plausible deniability.

Once problems do surface, people are scared or disengaged and don't offer their best ideas. That makes it more likely that the fix will be a band-aid that soothes symptoms, but doesn't address root causes.

When blame is the knee-jerk response, people don't learn from problems and mistakes. The may try something different, but it won't be from a deep understanding of the situation. They'll try the least risky action that will protect them from more blame.

All this makes it more likely that it will take longer for problems to become visible—at which point they will be even hairier and harder to fix, creating a vicious cycle.

About the author

Esther Derby's picture Esther Derby

A regular StickyMinds.com and Better Software magazine contributor, Esther Derby is one of the rare breed of consultants who blends the technical issues and managerial issues with the people-side issues. She is well known for helping teams grow to new levels of productivity. Project retrospectives and project assessments are two of Esther's key practices that serve as effective tools to start a team's transformation. Recognized as one of the world's leaders in retrospective facilitation, she often receives requests asking her to work with struggling teams. Esther is one of the founders of the AYE Conference. She co-author of Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. She has presented at STAREAST, STARWEST and the Better Software Conference & EXPO. You can read more of Esther's musings on the wonderful world of software at www.estherderby.com and on her weblog at www.estherderby.com/weblog/blogger.html. Her email is derby@estherderby.com.

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