Stopping the Blame Game


This one got stuck in the “stuff to blog about” pile for a few months, but HBR published a gem of an article called “How To Stop the Blame Game.”

Dr. Deming always talked about how destructive blame could be, saying:

“American management is quick to assign blame to an individual when the problem, is in fact, a fault in the system.” (source)

Blaming others seems to be human nature, so we have to work hard to not blame. From the HBR piece:

Playing the blame game never works. A deep set of research shows that people who blame others for their mistakes lose status, learn less, and perform worse relative to those who own up to their mistakes. Research also shows that the same applies for organizations. Groups and organizations with a rampant culture of blame have a serious disadvantage when it comes to creativity, learning, innovation, and productive risk-taking.

As Dan Pink writes and says, the business world is really good as ignoring scientific research about management and psychology. Research shows blame doesn't work, yet most traditional managers will blame people in their organization or blame other organizations. We don't have “evidence-based management” as Pink calls it (Bob Sutton also uses this phrase).

The HBR piece talks about a number of interesting themes, including:

  • How blame is contagious
  • How blame tends to roll downhill (the “kick the dog” phenomenon)

The article spells out some steps – easier said than done (and check out the article for the full descriptions):

  • Don't blame others for your mistakes
  • When you do blame, do so constructively
  • Set an example by confidently taking ownership for failures
  • Always focus on learning
  • Reward people for making mistakes

Again, easier said than done. Do your organizations, whether they are practicing Lean or not, try to reduce blame or use any of the recommendations of the HBR author?

I'm not sure, to the 2nd bullet point, how you can blame “constructively”?? Examples of that, anyone?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. I’ve worked in environments where people spend all of their time trying to pin blame on others when there is a problem rather than working as a team to find the root cause of a problem. These environments are absolutely miserable and unproductive. I believe that the core problem in these environments is that mistakes are not seen as a learning opportunity. Instead, they are seen as a reason for punishment.

    I definitely see how blame can be constructive. At times, the root cause of a problem truly is due to a mistake that someone made. If “blame” is actually seen as a “teachable moment” it can be constructive. Creating an environment where employees can openly admit an error without fear of major retribution is the key to making “constructive blame” possible.

    Of course, the word “blame” in itself has negative connotations. I prefer the term “root cause”.

  2. Blame is very, very easy to assign. Psychologically, it fits nicely into “black and white thinking.” It’s easy to say, “It’s us and them” without really evaluating what any of that means. “We’re the good ones at this company, those other guys aren’t doing their jobs.”

    Pinning the failings of an organization on the individuals is like talking about health in terms of organs. A single organ’s failure is not its own fault, it is all part of the system of the body and a failure evident in a single location may be (and often is) caused by a more complex interaction throughout the system. Just so for corporations. Failures aren’t isolated.

    Blame fights the anxiety of the unknown. It puts responsibility in an area that is a known quantity. It’s soothing to say, “It’s Jonn’s fault!” People are the machines–sadly–of the work environment. In manufacturing, how many times have machines been blamed? “Oh, the throughput of this machine is too slow!”, “This thing is crap! Who manufactured this?!”

    Embracing the anxiety of the unknown and searching for true answers is hard! To us the rewards are obvious; but, most managers aren’t experts in management, oddly enough. What does that say about the system that created and fostered a generation of management that doesn’t read about management, doesn’t look to research for solutions, and so forth?

  3. “The point is that when you define the problem as something that is within your domain of control, when you take responsibility, there is always something you can do to improve the situation, but pointing fingers freezes innovative thinking. A true culture of responsibility allows you to perceive opportunities for improvement everywhere, even in areas that at first seem beyond your control.” (source: Toyota Under Fire by Liker/Ogden page 218)

    I think blaming takes responsibility away from those that manage the system. I heard a Deming fan recently say the following “Most Senior Managers want to set up a system where they are not accountable, and they want to blame the people in the organization when things don’t go exactly as planned”.

    A lot of leaders wil say they are in charge unless there is a problem, then they want to push blame closest to where the error occurred.

  4. I am a former Illinois National Guard Officer. When I went through OCS we were taught to take responsibility for the actions of our subordinates. We were taught to take the blame and deal with our subordinates ourselves. I remember as I became an Army leader that some of my collegues took this instruction in different ways. Myself, I always thought that it meant I was responsible for teaching opportunities made available by mistakes or circumstances.

    At the time, I was also the supervisor of a machine shop in St. Louis, MO. I used the same standard there as I did in the National Guard. The results were incredible. I took resposibility (the blame) and kept my boss of of my machinists. Each error brought the opportunitly for constructive “blame” but just from me – not the owner or GM. As time went on, I gained more and more respect from the machinists and throughput and quality improved. We worked as a team. The machinists were not afraid to report an error (even very expensive ones).

    Of course, we were really following some practices that I know are 5S and lean today – but we didn’t know it at the time. We just knew it worked. I didn’t really have the time with my troops in the National Guard to see the same effects, but I have a hunch that it works well in any organization. I am encouraged to hear more about the US armed forces “going lean”.

    • Bob, it sounds like you’re a manager who I’d like to work for. I do my best work for managers who give me public credit when I do something well and who take the public heat when I make a mistake. I have a feeling that I’m not the only one who does their best work for those types of managers.

  5. Nice post, Mark. If I may add from Merriam Webster’s Free Online Dictionary:

    1: to find fault with : censure
    2 a : to hold responsible
    2 b : to place responsibility for

    Given these definitions, I can see where constructive blaming may prove to be productive. However, I wonder if the same objective (to hold someone responsible) couldn’t be accomplished differently.

    I also wonder if constructive blaming works on certain people and not others. Some who are humble and abhor shameful stigmas may respond more positively to this form of blaming? Other’s may take offense no matter the form blame is received.

    Either way, I think that most people tend to get defensive if they sense blame coming in their direction. This alone is reason to avoid the practice altogether, constructive or not.

  6. Yeah, for me the issue is that faults need a ‘place’ in a system or process to be attributed, and it may be one person was present or performed an action that caused a failure.

    So we don’t want to get so ‘respectful’ or politically correct that we can’t actually say it.

    We don’t need medical investigations that say, in passive voice, the knife slipped and the patient died, without actually saying it was the surgeon holding the knife. That sort of analysis is useless.

    But to blame the nurse for the wrong drug given when it was the doctor who ordered it, the pharmacy who supplied it and the administrator who paid for it – just because the blame rolls down hill. This is a worse problem as it prevents the sort of buy-in we need to get improvement at the front line.


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