I was at a party in Greenwich Village in New York City. It was crowded, with about twice as many people as the space comfortably fit. There was a dog in the mix too. But it was a casual event and we all spent a lot of time in the kitchen, cooking and cleaning.
I was at the sink washing dishes when I heard the dog yelp behind me. I turned just in time to see a woman curse at the dog as it dashed out of the kitchen. She had obviously just stepped on his foot or tail.
“Watch out!” she shouted after the dog, then saw me looking at her and added, “He’s always in the way.”
Really? You step on a dog and then you blame the dog? Who does that?
Actually, a lot of us do.
We start blaming others at an early age, usually to escape parental anger and punishment, but also to preserve our own self-esteem and self-image. Then the behavior sticks, often well into our adulthood. I — and I am sure you — see people in organizations point fingers all the time.
Sometimes it’s at a departmental level: A struggling sales group blames a poor product, while the product people blame an ineffectual sales team or maybe lax manufacturing. Blaming a department or a product feels safer than blaming a person since it appears less personal, can pass as an attempt at organizational improvement, and might seem less defensive. But it’s counter-productive as the transparency of culpability betrays its disguises.
A few years ago I sat at a table with the leaders of a major stock exchange. They were struggling with setting goals for the year. The CEO, to whom they all reported, was not in the room.
I asked them what was getting in the way. “We need direction from senior leadership,” they answered in agreement.
“Seriously?” I was stunned. “Look around,” I said, raising my voice a little, “Everyone in the organization is looking for direction from you! You are senior leadership.”
“No,” the head of something answered with the others nodding, “The CEO isn’t here.”
I retorted: “You’re blaming the CEO? You’re waiting for him to tell you what to do? At your level? Really?”
An awkward silence followed. Then we got to work turning the company around.
Blaming others is a poor strategy. Not simply because everyone can see through it. Or because it’s dishonest. Or because it destroys relationships. Or even because, while trying to preserve our self-esteem, it actually weakens it. There’s a more essential reason why blame is a bad idea: Blame prevents learning.
If something isn’t your fault, then there’s no reason for you to do anything differently. Which means, in all probability, you’ll make the same mistake in the future. That will lead to more blame. It’s a cycle that almost always ends badly.
Recently, a CEO I work with fired Bill*, one of his portfolio managers. He didn’t fire him for poor results. He fired him for blaming his poor investment results on everything except himself. The CEO was only looking for one thing from Bill: Awareness of the mistakes he was making. But Bill continued to deny his role in his poorly performing portfolio.
The CEO was right to fire him. If Bill couldn’t admit to the mistakes he was making, why wouldn’t he make the same mistake tomorrow? Would you trust Bill with your money?
Thankfully there’s a simple solution: Take the blame for anything you’re even remotely responsible for.
This solution transforms all the negative consequences of blaming others into positive ones. It solidifies relationships, improves your credibility, makes you and others happy, reinforces transparency, improves self-esteem, increases learning, and solves problems. It’s as close as I’ve ever seen to a panacea.
Contrary to what you may feel in the moment, taking the blame is the power move, strengthening your position, not weakening it. First of all, because once you’ve taken responsibility for something, you can do something about it, which gives you strength.
But also because it takes courage to own your blame, and that shows strength. It immediately silences anyone who might try to blame you — what’s the point if you’ve already taken the blame? The “blame you” conversation is over. Now you can focus on solving problems.
Being defensive makes you slippery. Taking responsibility makes you trustworthy. You might think it puts you at risk because others may see an opening and jump on you. But that’s not what usually happens.
I was running a strategy offsite at a high technology company with a CEO and his direct reports. We were looking at some problematic numbers from the previous quarter. One by one each leader was trying to argue that he or she was not, ultimately, responsible for the issues, pointing to the other areas that contributed.
Then Dave, the head of sales spoke up. He proceeded to list the mistakes he felt he personally made and what he wanted to do differently in the future.
His colleagues didn’t pile on. In fact, they did the opposite. They began to say things to dilute his blame. One by one, they started taking responsibility for their role in the challenges the company was facing.
Taking the blame serves as an example. When you take the blame, others get embarrassed about not taking the blame themselves. When they see you don’t get shot, they feel emboldened to take the risk.
And even if they don’t, you will now be able to avoid making the mistakes you’ve made in the past, which, ultimately, is the key to your success.
By taking the blame, Dave changed the course of that meeting and, as it turns out, the course of the company. He also got promoted.
There is one tricky part of this. To take the blame, you need to have confidence in yourself and your capability. You need the personal strength to accept failure. You need enough self-esteem to believe you can learn from your mistakes and succeed another day. You need to accept failure as part of life and not a final sentence on who you are as a person.
In other words, it’s OK to step on a dog. It happens. Just don’t blame the dog.
*Names have been changed.
Originally published at the Harvard Business Review.