Executives of the three companies at the heart of the recent massive Gulf oil spill were grilled by lawmakers this week in back-to-back Senate inquiries. Instead of accepting responsibility, however, they fell over each other in attempts to shift the blame. No one was impressed.
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.
That’s why creating a culture of psychological safety is one of the most important things a leader can do.
But this isn’t easy, and some recent findings offer another reason why: Blaming is contagious. A set of recent studies conducted in collaboration with Larissa Tiedens of the Stanford Graduate School of Business showed that merely being exposed to someone else making a blame attribution for a mistake was enough to cause people to turn around and blame others for completely unrelated failures. This is different from the “kick-the-dog” phenomenon, where a person is more likely to blame the person below them in the hierarchy when they, themselves, have been blamed by a higher-up. Instead, it appears that all you have to do to “catch” the blame virus is to be exposed to someone else passing the buck.
How does this happen? Our findings, reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, demonstrated that goal contagion is at work. The “germ” that spreads is the goal of protecting one’s self-image. When people observe others protecting their egos, it spreads. Mood and social learning were ruled out as alternative explanations.
These findings mean that blame can spread virally. They also, thankfully, offer some insight into how to prevent the spread of blame in one’s organization. Here are a few practical steps you can take:
- Don’t blame others for your mistakes. The temptation is huge to point the finger elsewhere when you make a mistake. Resist it. Not only will you gain respect and loyalty from your followers, you’ll also help to prevent a culture of blame from emerging.
- When you do blame, do so constructively. There are times when people’s mistakes really do need to be surfaced in public. In these cases, make sure to highlight that the goal is to learn from mistakes, not to publicly humiliate those who make them.
- Set an example by confidently taking ownership for failures. Our findings showed that blame was contagious, but not among those who felt psychologically secure. So try to foster a chronic sense of inner security in order to reduce the chances that you’ll lash out at others.
- Always focus on learning. Creating a culture where learning — rather than avoiding mistakes — is the top priority will help to ensure that people feel free talk about and learn from their errors.
- Reward people for making mistakes. Some companies are actually starting to incentivize employees to make mistakes, so long as the mistakes can teach valuable lessons that lead to future innovation.
Nathanael J. Fast is an assistant professor of management at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.
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