Blame Someone Else

The last time you made a mistake, did you blame someone else?

There have been a few times when one of my Clients’ employees have not liked something that their boss did, and then just did not show-up at work the next day. They called-in “sick” and blamed their boss rather than own the fact their behavior is wrong.

This is especially a concern when the employee is in a leadership role because they are setting a standard that if you are upset with something at work then you can take a paid day off by lying that you are “sick.” 

Two other versions of this type of selfish reaction is the employee gets visibly and verbally angry, or isolates themselves.  These are all examples of playing the Blame Game.  Someone feels they are right and the other person is wrong.  Something occurs that upsets them, and they react with a Fight or Flight behavior.

The Blame Game is unproductive, and demonstrates a lack of emotional intelligence.

As leaders, we hold ourselves to higher standards and expect the same from our people.  A more positive alternative to the Blame Game is to work through the situation with patience, respect, and open communication.

Part of our responsibility as leaders is to develop habits to respond positively and effectively to problems rather than let anger and emotion make things worse.

Our life experience, including our career, is a mix of positive and negatives.  The exhilaration of the good and the wounds from the bad experiences affect our reactions and responses.  Although our life experiences are different, we may subconsciously choose the Blame Game as a survival mechanism. 

Do you like to be quickly, often emotionally blamed when something goes wrong?  Especially, when you believe some, or all of the problem, is not your fault?

Here are three common approaches when mistakes are made:

1.      Blame others.  Some people have an instinctive reaction that everything is the fault of someone else or a circumstance.  Initially or long-term, their habit is to deny and defend any way they may have contributed to the issue rather than own their part of it.

People with this habit, which is the Blame Game, judge others harshly for the same negative behaviors they exhibit themselves.

2.      Blame myself.  There are people who immediately blame themselves for everything, even when their contribution to the problem was minor or they were not involved at all.  Part of this issue is low self-esteem.

We all need constant work on our habits.  These first two approaches are unhealthy habits that are often the outcome of difficult or even abusive life experiences.

3.      Own it.  Rather than jump to conclusions, these people have healthier habits.  They consider the situation and are comfortable owning their portion of a mistake.  They often verbally accept responsibility, apologize, resolve the situation, and work on their habits to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

This approach is healthy and productive for the individual and everyone involved.  However, how do we get there if this is not our habit today?

Before I outline a better habit than the Blame Game, let’s consider some interesting nuances in how people relate to each other when one or more people need to accept the responsibility (blame) for situations.  Let me walk you through a few of them:

1.      Circumstance.  Did you trip over something because you're clumsy or were not paying attention, was it someone else's fault, or fate caused by a higher power?  The truth may be clouded by the wounds of your life experience.  Being comfortable admitting a mistake, open to learning from it, and then letting it go frees you to be your best.

2.      Fight or Flight.  It's interesting to consider that blaming others can be a defense mechanism or conflict resolution method.  Either way it is destructive.  Someone who reacts to conflict by wanting to fight is more interested in being right than preserving the relationship.  Someone who reacts to conflict by withdrawing (flight) is more interested in protecting themselves than preserving the relationship.  Both approaches are unhealthy.

3.      Intent.  There are two employees who do not record details about their work as required by their company.  The work done by both employees is not successful and the error occurs again at each client.  The problem reoccurring by the client served by the first employee had to be resolved by someone else.  This person wasted a lot of time because the prior work was not properly documented.  The problem reoccurring by the client served by the second employee is resolved by that same employee.  Because that employee had done the earlier work, the new problem was resolved relatively quickly.

Which employee behaved worse when not documenting the work they did?

Too often we place greater blame on the employee whose lack of responsibility negatively affected someone else.  However, there is a strong argument that if the two people had the same intent, then they should be equally blameworthy and receive the same consequences.

4.      Liars.  One major issue with the Blame Game is people consciously or subconsciously lie to themselves, and others.  This is especially common when an individual's habit is to immediately deflect, deny, and defend.  This is true even when their defense is to withdraw rather than attack.

5.      Judgment.  If we are going to be candid, most people are not very good at figuring out why someone else behaves the way they do.  Jumping to judgment means that we are relying on assumptions, limited facts, our own bias, and/or any distorted perspective we may have due to pressure we are under at the time.

6.      Stuff.  Let's be real.  "Stuff" happens.  One healthy approach to problems is to change your approach.  Be accepting, if not even thankful.  Pause and direct your thinking to embrace the fact you "get to" experience the situation, rather than "have to" endure it.  If you believe in a higher power, rather than jumping to a conclusion or the Blame Game, you can ask something like, “Lord, what do you want me to do in this situation?”

7.      Habit.  Blaming is a habit.  It occurs as a reaction, instinctively jumping to a conclusion.  The reverse, a response, is a more powerful habit we all need to develop to sustain healthy relationships. 

The bottom line is everyone loses when they play the Blame Game.

Maybe there’s a better path to take at this stage of your journey…


Here is one approach to develop a new, more powerful habit to overcome any Blame Game-like reactions to situations in our lives:

#1 - Jump to curiosity, not judgment.    

SUGGESTIONS:  (1)  You can own your piece and move on. 

(2)  Other times you need to work with others to resolve the situation.  The process of ownership is shared and takes longer.

(3)  Own only your mistake(s).  Do not take responsibility for any part of the issue which was not due to your actions.  Maybe your mistake was a bad tone of voice, you too quickly agreed to something, or you did not follow through on time.  Although you might have made a mistake, that does not mean everything that occurred is your fault.  Others need to own their piece of the problem puzzle too!

#2 - Ask questions.  Do not let others tempt you into joining the Blame Game.  Be open receptive to receive information about the situation.

#3 - Carefully consider the answers to your questions, and the facts.  If necessary, ask more questions.

#4 - Be open to quickly owning any part of the situation that may have been your fault.  You can soft-pedal a bit by saying something like, "Well, that sounds like I could've handled that situation better.  I apologize.”  Often you may want to save a deeper apology for later after you have had time to get a complete picture of the situation. 

#5 - Apologize sincerely, specifically as needed, and relatively briefly.

#6 - Discuss possible solutions.

#7 - Give time for the individual or group to process the new information, if necessary.

#8 - Work through it together, focusing on the solution(s), and avoiding the Blame Game. 

#9 - Agree together on a resolution.  Confirm how everyone involved will communicate progress towards and completion of the resolution.

#10 - Follow-through. If necessary, follow-up with others to confirm everyone has done their part to resolve the situation. 

#11 - After the situation is resolved, take time to consider how to avoid repeating the mistake.  Successful people do not often repeat mistakes.  Maybe you need to work on some of your habits or improve some processes so this situation does not repeat itself.

#12 - Be alert the next time a similar situation occurs.  Build on the strengths of how you resolved the prior mistake to have people work respectfully together to more quickly and easily overcome the current challenge. 

Mistakes happen.  Often part of the mistake or the entire event is out of our control.

However, we do have 100 percent control and responsibility for how we respond to the situation.

Avoid the trap of the Blame Game. 

Instead, be the inspiring, trustworthy, capable leader you were designed to be.


David Graham Russell

Leadership Activist, Author & Consultant