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Break The Blaming Cycle

From a pointing finger to a helping hand

January 01, 2021 | 4 min. read

Ever receive a passive aggressive email, or witness a colleague being humiliated over a mistake? Maybe the public shaming happened to you. 

For many, the blame cycle is an unavoidable part of working life. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We’re all human and we all make mistakes – we need to accept this in ourselves and others. The problem is usually not a person, but a process or a culture. Let’s take a look at what causes the blame cycle and the best ways to ditch it. 

What fuels the blame game? 

  1. Company culture
    Workplace blaming mostly comes down to company culture. This is hugely important – not just because it influences how employees feel at work, but it also determines the success of the business. Company culture is defined by leaders and trickles down. If leadership sets positive values and sticks to them, then it’s easy for employees to do the same. But if management is always looking for a scapegoat, employees will copy them, resorting to CYA (cover your ass) behaviour instead of supporting each other. 
  2.  Low self-worth
    On a personal level, psychologist Harrier Lerner says we each need a strong platform of self-worth to stand on when apologising or taking responsibility. If your platform is wobbly then it’s easy to drop into shame and defensiveness. A blaming culture destabilizes your platform, making you feel more defensive, more likely to blame others and less willing to speak out for fear of criticism. Even if you have good self-esteem, your work culture might make you feel insecure enough to blame others. That’s how the cycle comes full circle.   

How can we change a blaming culture? 

It’s all about empowering employees to find their own solutions. That means championing company values that promote respectful communication and supportive feedback channels. Thus creating a harmonious place to work, free from blame and shame. 

What can I do on a personal level? 

Whether you’re the hurt party or the one who caused the pain, you need to listen and communicate so the other person will hear you – here are few tips: 

  1. Keep it short  critical words are hard to hear, so keep it short. Don’t overtalk it and never send that angry email.  ‘Can we talk about our work process? I feel like we sometimes misunderstand each other.’
  2. Swap blaming for assertive claiming– this is where you explain your perspective while still respecting that others will see it differently.  ‘You’ve overseen this project really well, I just feel like I’ve put a lot of time into it and I’d love to get some recognition.’
  3. Focus on your feelings– instead of highlighting the other person’s errors, explain how you were affected by their actions.  ‘I left your office feeling pretty hurt yesterday after you challenged my reasons for taking sick leave.’
  4. Don’t demand an apology – this makes the other person feel like a kid and they’ll resist it. Just aim to get them to see your perspective. ‘I hope you can understand where I’m coming from.’
  5. Take the high ground– even if the other person has behaved outrageously, you must resist sinking to their level. If they can’t apologize, then you want them to at least hear your message. ‘I’m sorry you still disagree, I hope there’ll come a time when you understand my perspective.’
  6. Non-defensive listening– if someone expresses their hurt, it’s important to listen with empathy instead of looking for cracks in their argument. Be curious and ask questions. ‘Tell me what you thought I said in that conversation. I had no idea I made you feel that way.’ 

Whatever situation you might find yourself in, one of the most powerful tools at your disposal is time. Do you really have to reply immediately? Wouldn’t it be better to say ‘I hear you, but I will get back to you on that‘? Most things will already cool down if you are the one taking a step back, giving others time to breathe and come to their senses. It will probably diffuse a lot of difficult situations and it will give you a better starting point to work things out.  

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