Classic: Behaviors Managers Hate, Blaming

Originally published 1/3/12

"Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan."

It's basic human nature to desire association with successes and distance oneself from failure.  Everyone wants to picture themselves as winners, and often a part of this is involves shedding the shame of losing – sometimes by any means possible.

Blamers -- the next in my series on Behavior Managers Hate -- take failure avoidance to the extreme.  A Blamer will find reason or rationale to fob off the responsibility for anything that didn't go well -- usually onto someone else.  And to make matters worse for the boss, Blamers often direct culpability back toward the manager for whom they work.

A typical exchange between a Blamer and a manager might sound something like this:

Manager:  Why haven't you gotten that project done?

Blamer:  You didn't tell me it was a priority. (blames the manager)

Manager:  We discussed it at the staff meeting.  Everyone knew we needed this done ASAP.

Blamer:  Sally hasn't given me her input yet.  She’s always running behind. (blames Sally)

Manager:  Why didn't you go get it?

Blamer:  Because of the other project you told me to work on...(again blames the manager)

And so on, and so on.

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No matter what the manager says, the Blamer employee will refuse to take ownership for any of the shortcomings in his own performance.  Blamers always find an externality (another person’s behavior, a circumstance, a conflict, etch.) that prevented them from accomplishing what they were supposed to accomplish.

As a manager, I always preferred to hear the employee say, "Jeez, I guess I forgot about that.", or even "I had to leave early yesterday to take my kid to the doctor."  There is a refreshing honesty in hearing someone accept responsibility for their actions.  Once the employee takes this step, a skilled manager can work with her subordinate to sort through the cause in an attempt to avoid potential future failures of the same type.

With blaming, there isn’t much a manager can do other than argue.  And even that usually doesn’t accomplish much.  What often occurs once the manager walks away shaking her head is the Blamer’s stock plummets in the boss’s eyes.  Blamers are often shocked when their opinion of their performance and their supervisor’s don’t line up, apparently thinking that by blaming someone else they earn a free pass on a particular failure.  While their blaming actions might convince an employee that a failure was beyond their control, it rarely convinces their boss.

Some of a manager’s toughest performance reviews can be when they review blamers.

I recall a number of Blamers that have worked for me over the years.  One, in particular, couldn’t seem to take responsibility for any in a series of projects he developed, budgeted, ran, and failed to execute properly.  There was always someone or something that caused the shortfall.

For a while I was willing to accept the excuses at face value, but after a time a pattern emerged that was only explained by one thing – he wasn’t good at this job.

I didn’t fire him.  But I did reassign him, significantly reducing his level of responsibility and, as a consequence, the degree to which he was able to cast aspersions on others.

If you don’t want to be a Blamer, an important question to ask is:  Is the opposite of blaming (the accepting of responsibility) a good thing for the employee.

Truthfully, the answer is:  Sometimes “yes,” but more often, “no.”

The answer depends on the character of the manager on the receiving end of the process, as well as on the norms of the organization.  When the manager uses the employee’s ownership of a failure as a learning opportunity, everyone generally benefits – particularly when the two of them can trace problems back to the root cause of the problem and make changes.  When the boss, or the organization at large, seems bent on attaching blame for every problem to a person, it is undoubtedly in the employee’s best interests to do all they can to escape it.  These environments are caustic and punitive, and even though blaming might drive the boss nuts, one can hardly criticize employees for engaging it the behavior as it becomes a critical survival skill.

Yes, managers themselves often create the environment that leads to the blaming behavior in their subordinates.

Some managers, particularly ones who are less experienced or not particularly adept at identifying a Blamer, will internalize the employee’s critique.  These managers take more and more responsibility on their own shoulders until the boss cannot possibly succeed.  When this happens, the manager essentially becomes responsible for “everything” and the blame-focused employees act like their sole obligation is to give their “best” effort – not to achieve success.

If you're a manager and feel like you own it all, while your employees have very little skin in the game, perhaps you are being played by one or more Blamers.

I'm not trying to say that taking responsibility is easy, but it is what adults do.

So if you find yourself frequently blaming others or external forces for misses, failures, and screw-ups, you should consider changing your perspective.  Look at failures as yours first, and only resort casting blame when you’re convinced you couldn’t have changed the outcome with a better, smarter effort.  Take ownership for those things that are in your control.  Be a grown up.

Otherwise, you look like a child to your manager, and you significantly compromise their evaluation of your performance.

I recall a number of Blamers that have worked for me over the years.  One, in particular, couldn’t seem to take responsibility for any in a series of projects he developed, budgeted, ran, and failed to execute properly.  There was always someone or something that caused the shortfall.

For a while I was willing to accept the excuses at face value, but after a time a pattern emerged that was only explained by one thing – he wasn’t good at this job.

I didn’t fire him.  But I did reassign him, significantly reducing his level of responsibility and, as a consequence, the degree to which he was able to cast aspersions on others.

If you don’t want to be a Blamer, an important question to ask is:  Is the opposite of blaming (the accepting of responsibility) a good thing for the employee.

Truthfully, the answer is:  Sometimes “yes,” but more often, “no.”

The answer depends on the character of the manager on the receiving end of the process, as well as on the norms of the organization.  When the manager uses the employee’s ownership of a failure as a learning opportunity, everyone generally benefits – particularly when the two of them can trace problems back to the root cause of the problem and make changes.  When the boss, or the organization at large, seems bent on attaching blame for every problem to a person, it is undoubtedly in the employee’s best interests to do all they can to escape it.  These environments are caustic and punitive, and even though blaming might drive the boss nuts, one can hardly criticize employees for engaging it the behavior as it becomes a critical survival skill.

Yes, managers themselves often create the environment that leads to the blaming behavior in their subordinates.

Some managers, particularly ones who are less experienced or not particularly adept at identifying a Blamer, will internalize the employee’s critique.  These managers take more and more responsibility on their own shoulders until the boss cannot possibly succeed.  When this happens, the manager essentially becomes responsible for “everything” and the blame-focused employees act like their sole obligation is to give their “best” effort – not to achieve success.

If you're a manager and feel like you own it all, while your employees have very little skin in the game, perhaps you are being played by one or more Blamers.

I'm not trying to say that taking responsibility is easy, but it is what adults do.

So if you find yourself frequently blaming others or external forces for misses, failures, and screw-ups, you should consider changing your perspective.  Look at failures as yours first, and only resort casting blame when you’re convinced you couldn’t have changed the outcome with a better, smarter effort.  Take ownership for those things that are in your control.  Be a grown up.

Otherwise, you look like a child to your manager, and you significantly compromise their evaluation of your performance.

Posts in the “Behaviors Managers Hate” Series

To the right is the cover for DELIVERABLES.  This novel features a senior manager approached by government officials to spy on his employer, concerned about how a "deal" the company is negotiating might put critical technical secrets into the hands of enemies of the United States.  Of course, things are not exactly as it seems....

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.