The Blame Game

It doesn’t matter whose fault it is…or does it?

Have you ever been on a team where things were not going well and one or two people seemed more concerned about making sure they didn’t get blamed for anything instead of focusing on solving the problems?

This drives me CRAZY, but whose fault is that? Ha-ha. That may seem like a rhetorical question given the sentence before it, but it’s not – I’m dead serious! 

At my previous company, we had a great team…not perfect, but fantastic for the most part!  We all know everyone has strengths and weaknesses (if you didn’t, now you do!) but what’s interesting is we don’t always know what ours are, and the same goes for those on our team. We had one guy, (we’ll call him Larry) and Larry was the most detail-oriented, organized, meticulous person I have ever met in my life. Larry had worked for us for over 10 years and I could seriously count on one hand the number of mistakes this guy made in that time. I would often praise him and sometimes joke with others that Larry never makes any mistakes! Obviously this wasn’t entirely true (after all he decided to come work for me! ha-ha) but honestly, it wasn’t far from the truth. 

One thing I had noticed though, was that on the rare occasion that Larry did make a mistake, he never seemed to want to admit it. It wasn’t a big deal to me, mainly because it was so rare and overall he was a stellar team member with amazing work ethic, a great attitude and well-respected by his peers. In the moment, it would bother me but never enough for me to confront the issue. Whenever I would be preparing for his “annual review” (which I now realize is a TERRIBLE way to communicate, but that’s for another post) I would try to think of an example of his failing to admit an error so I could bring it up, but because it was so rare I could never think of one. If there’s one thing I had learned about 10 years earlier it’s that if you don’t have a specific example…DON’T bring up the issue in the review! Therefore, it would go another year without being addressed.

Then one day it happened: Larry made a big mistake, a costly mistake, but could it really be his fault? If it were, would he admit it?

Let me explain a few things before we go on.  You need to know two frustrations that REALLY drive me nuts and it’s funny because they sort of contradict each other:  One is that I can’t stand it when people want to instantly point fingers at others when something goes wrong, and the other is when someone screws up but they won’t own it! I’m sure I have several “blind spots” (we all do) but I know for a fact this isn’t one of them.  Rather, when I would make a mistake that involved Larry in any way, shape or form, I would instantly and possibly exaggeratedly admit to it and apologize to those it affected! In some ways, I think this was an effort to compensate for never having broached a cause of disagreement, which, although fairly minor, really needed to be addressed.  Perhaps it was also a round about way to be an example of what to do when you mess up, i.e. admit it, hoping Larry would catch on without me pinpointing the obvious.

In Dr. Henry Cloud’s book, Boundaries for Leaders, he talks about the DRI – the directly responsible individual.  Do you know who that is?  Dr. Cloud tells a story of a time he was consulting with a client who asked, “How do you know if the problem is about the leader or the follower?” The client went on to talk about “problem employees” and asked, “There is such a thing as a ‘follower’ who isn’t getting it, right?” Dr. Cloud responded, “Sure, but on whose watch? In whose culture? Who built the team that allows that?”

And therein lies the answer! It was my fault Larry didn’t correct his weakness, because I never brought it to the surface. It always comes down to being the leader’s fault and often times the “fault” is simply not having that difficult conversation to bring a concern to light, deal with it, and move on.

Confront issues in real-time and be candid! Attack the issue, not the person and when you as the leader do this and your people see this pattern develop, it will slowly become part of the culture.

Okay, to finish the story… in this case there was really no way for Larry to avoid taking ownership of his mistake and he acknowledged it. I took this incident as my opportunity to raise the concern I’d had for several years and guess what:  Larry didn’t cry, he didn’t quit and he didn’t even get angry! He apologized and committed to making a concerted effort to stop shirking responsibility for slip-ups and confessed that it really came down to pride. He was so incredibly focused on not missing anything or making any mistakes that when he did, it was a blow to his ego. What I don’t think he realized until that moment of self-reflection, is that his peers would respect him not only for an incredibly great track record but also, and even more so, for owning it when he did!

The message here is, be slow to point the finger but quick to own the problems, especially if you’re the leader!

Jon Weening

Jon Weening

I have two passions that are the driving force behind my work; the first, to help business owners and leadership teams become their best and the second – a natural result of the first – to help create fulfilling and engaging work places for their teams.

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