Leadership can be a funny business when things go wrong. Take for example a team that isn’t winning games. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of reasons why, but the head coach staunchly proclaims, “This is all on me.” The reality is that the failure to compete can hardly rest on the shoulders of one person, but the heroic image of the captain going down with the ship remains an indelible one when we think about those in charge of failure.
Now consider an opposite situation, in which a business leader runs an organization that fails to meet its quarterly objectives. The leader, rather than taking ownership of the situation, points to everyone and everything else as to why results didn’t meet or exceed expectations. In this situation we see an image of an island surrounded by shark infested waters when the goal is to cross to the beach on the other side. The world conspires to make that an impossible task, through no fault of the individual responsible for making it happen.
The two situations above illustrate the struggle we have with blame. Is it noble to take it on yourself, understanding that when we lead the accountability for that leadership falls on us no matter what? Or is it good leadership to find everything that went wrong and spread the wealth, so to speak, making sure everyone owns up to their errors in the process? The answer is clearly “none of the above,” because how we deal with blame can be problematic no matter what we do. This is as true in organizations as it is in our own heads.
Clearly, blaming others for things that don’t go right in our lives can make us feel better, and often there is some truth that external factors can contribute when things go wrong. But as a deflection mechanism it carries some serious risks. First and foremost, it can actually look like deflection, which can have a negative impact on how you are perceived by others. Second, it doesn’t allow you to get to why negative outcomes occur because people spend too much time looking elsewhere for the root cause. Finally, blaming others can seriously erode cooperation and eventually personal influence with others as they seek to protect their own results and reputations.
But if you think that being the noble captain is any better, think again. You will not get to why if you consistently put the blame on yourself either. Most outcomes are complex and interconnected, and it is important to realize your part in failure while also diagnosing – not pointing fingers – at other factors that might have contributed to an unsatisfactory outcome. You also put yourself and your leadership signature at risk by isolating fault internally. Eventually someone is going to believe you are indeed the root cause.
So what is the right answer? It is to forget blame entirely and focus instead on what went wrong. Blame doesn’t solve problems, and it doesn’t serve any purpose except to put people on the defensive which eats at morale and creates environments that lack trust. When we spend time on who is at fault, we lose focus on ensuring that what went wrong doesn’t happen again in the future.
Keep this lesson close the next time something isn’t going right, whether it is a business result or something causing you anxiousness in your personal life. The principle is the same in either arena. Blame does not get you anywhere.
I will leave you with a little story that hopefully will make it easier to remember the next time you feel defensive or anxious.
A busy day at the doctor’s office, with people milling about – patients, doctors, nurses, and a construction crew laying down a new floor. The smell of a hot iron and glue is stronger than the din of activity that permeates the small rooms.
Suddenly, someone smells smoke, and notices that a small fire has started in the area where the construction clue is laying down the new floor. It appears that the iron has fallen and superheated the flooring, causing it to light. The room erupts in chaos, with everyone yelling, pointing fingers and trying to figure out what went wrong and who started the fire. The doctor blames the construction workers, the patients blame the doctors, and everyone is looking for someone else to point the finger at.
Meanwhile, the nurse calmly walks over to the fire, stamps it out, and unplugs the iron.
Be the calm nurse, and don’t nurse the chaos. Blame serves the world a lot less, personally or professionally, than solutions do.