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.
Shifting the Blame Dynamic
When someone brings a problem to you, you have a choice. You can blame, or you can engage in problem-solving.
First, slow down and become aware of your own response. Are you feeling scared or angry? Are you worried that you will be blamed? Blaming the messenger won't change whether someone else will blame you. But, if you move to problem-solving, you will be able to communicate what you plan to do, not just bring bad news.
Ask questions—using a neutral tone of voice—to understand the issue and implications. Questions that start with What and How are likely to sound less blaming than questions that start with Why. (Assuming you don't ask "What the heck were you thinking?" or "How did you make this mess?" Those questions would not be helpful.)
Figure out what to do about the immediate issue. Ask if the person who brought the problem needs help. If she doesn't need (or want help), don't inflict it. Agree on how you'll assess progress solving the problem.
Ask for the help you need to explain the implications to others.
Later (but not much later), you can investigate root causes. Don't assume that it's a problem with the individual; the issue may very well be a system problem. There may be other lessons to learn from the problem—for example, how to set expectations, how to break work into inch pebbles, and how to make progress (and problems) more visible. Be careful of your phrasing. Keep it neutral and on an adult-to-adult level. "What did you learn from this" can sound like a parent or teacher speaking to a child. And don't call it a "teachable moment"—that phrase smacks of condescension.
In organizations where blame is pervasive, blame is the systemic issue. The only way to work out of blame orientation is to choose not to blame. Instead, demonstrate problem-solving, and gradually rebuild trust with those with whom you work directly.
There are times when we do have to hold individuals responsible for their actions. But usually it's more important to fix the problem and learn from the situation.
If you find yourself on the receiving end of blame, do your best to stay centered and move toward problem-solving. Articulate what you know about the problem, what you have tried, and where you need help. Remember that blamers often feel small and scared. Blaming is their way of coping with those feelings.
So, what happened at the kennel?
When I made my request to check availability the fourth time, the receptionist finally walked over to a wall calendar that showed all the kennel reservations for the week. There was space for Pudge. It took three minutes for the hand off. I expressed my gratitude that there was a place open and continued on my way.
You could look at this and say the receptionist is a little slow and doesn't understand customer service. But I think there was something else at play. She didn't want to be blamed. Fear of blame begets blaming, and blame always delays solving the problem.