Originally posted 4/23/2011
We'd like to think corporate success -- and success in life, in general -- is based more on the check marks in our “win” column than anything else. People call this environment a “meritocracy,” implying that those that demonstrate merit are rewarded.
Unfortunately, meritocracy is often little more than an elusive myth.
There is an ugly element in human nature – one that encourages us to zero in on mistakes, failures, and other losses, no matter how few and far between. Most of us automatically notice the foibles and pitfalls of others. We discover and dwell on disasters of every kind.
This tendency causes failures to loom much larger than successes in the eyes of most – including most bosses and other influential senior executives. It is often your lack of failures rather than your list of successes that determines where your career goes.
The Blame-gamer understands this element of human nature very well, and is prepared to take advantage of it.
Blame-gaming behavior is sometimes described as "the search for the guilty.” (Its corollary: “the punishment of the innocent," is employed by Scapegoaters.) To the Blame-gamer, every problem, failure, or shortcoming has a name associated with it -- someone who is "guilty." And believe me, the guilty party is not someone he is trying to identify for rewards and accolades.
One of the things Blame-gamers rarely seem to do is to take the time to understand the circumstances surrounding a failure. Was the original strategy sound? Were there environmental factors that made success impossible to achieve? Were the expectations of what would be called success unreasonable? To the Blame-gamer, these questions are irrelevant. In her world, examining such factors only interferes with the search for the person or persons “guilty” of screwing things up.
If you work for a Blame-gamer, watch out. Blame-gaming is only one small twist of technique away from scapegoating (one of the most destructive and heinous political tactics.) It isn’t a large leap from “searching for the guilty” to “throwing the innocent under the bus.”
Unlike some of the other extreme leadership styles where the leader can be fully or partially blind to their own behavior, Blame-gamers are quite deliberate. Blame-gaming is often an act of self-preservation. Since the boss is typically responsible for setting direction and reading the environment, pushing failure onto subordinates for “poor execution” offers the Blame-game a modicum of cover for their own potential failures.
Blame-gamers seem to be guided by the incorrect belief that every business problem can be successfully resolved by a person of sufficient talent. When failure occurs, to the Blame-gamer it surely must be due to a defect in the person charged with implementation or execution. Rarely are flawed strategies or an “unwinnable” circumstances considered.
The behavior can be more sinister and deliberate in many cases, a simple attempt to divert attention away from the Blame-gamer, himself.
The impact on the organization is fairly predictable – rampant conservatism. In the Blame-gamer environment, where "failure" is punished much more than "success" is ever rewarded, it pays to avoid risks. Employees in this environment will be reluctant to bring forward ideas unless they're a sure thing. Clever employees will strive for recognition by presenting projects and improvement concepts, but will shy away from involving themselves in any kind of implementation. Goals and targets, which the wise employee already tries to set as low as possible, will be pushed even lower in the Blame-gamer environment where there is little upside to agreeing to anything more than the most achievable of targets.
Over time, the company will be overtaken by smaller, less risk-averse competitors, those willing to innovate with new systems, products, and processes. The Blame-gamer-led firm will be slow to move on new ideas lest employees take the credit for anything less than stellar success.
Other Posts in this Series:
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