When Things Go Wrong, Stay Above the Fault Line

Blame-Game Lessons from Reality TV

When Things Go Wrong, Stay Above the Fault Line

When bad things happen at work, it’s only natural to want to blame someone. But there’s a better way to deal with the situation and focus in on the results we really want.

Still, being accountable isn’t always easy. When the result, outcome, situation or circumstance is different from what we want -- in other words, “bad” -- we usually want the problem to be about someone or something else -- not us.

“We live in an increasingly victim society in which it’s the norm to assess fault and blame when someone thinks a result is bad,” says Phil Holcomb, cofounder of Extraordinary Learning, a Seattle-based personal and professional development consultancy. “It’s become a preemptive strike defense.”

But laying blame doesn’t really make the problems go away. It just transfers the responsibility for the problem to someone else. Truly solving the problem requires learning to control our reactions.

Impulse Control

While we may think that shifting blame to someone else makes us look better, it’s at best a short-term solution, says Dawna Stone, winner of “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart” and author of Winning Nice: How to Succeed in Business and in Life Without Waging War. “Doing so has a tendency to make others reluctant to work with you,” she says. “People want to be built up, not torn down, and they gravitate away from people who try to make them look bad. On a personal level, if you habitually blame others for your own mistakes, you’re missing out on an opportunity to improve your own skills and abilities. If you take responsibility for your mistakes and learn from them, you actually increase your chances for long-term career success.”

Doing this can be as simple as learning to hold your tongue and control knee-jerk reactions. “Before you can get to the point where you’re willing to accept responsibility, you need to overcome your impulse to lash out at others,” Stone says. Try counting to 10 before responding. Or tell the person you’ll get back to them shortly and excuse yourself so you can calm down and be rational. “Companies reward and promote people who solve problems, not people who dish out blame,” she says.

The Karma Wheel

Chef Lee Ann Wong says that faulting others is a recipe for disaster. Wong won acclaim for more than her cooking skills on the first season of “Top Chef.” On a show where several contestants regularly threw other competitors under the bus to save their own skins, Wong held herself responsible when a team she captained lost a challenge. Though the decision led to her dismissal, she still sees no value in blaming others.

“What goes around comes around, and word of mouth travels fast,” she says. “Usually, the circles that you run in are smaller than you think, and people like to talk. All of the basic rules that you learned on the playground apply to adult life. Maintaining a good reputation is just as important -- if not more -- as the quality of your work.”

What’s the Real Problem?

The key to truly winning the blame game is to stay focused on the wider purpose. “If we allow ourselves to get caught up in the blame game, who wins becomes more important than the thing we were attempting to create or fix,” Holcomb says.

But if we keep our reactions aimed at the real problem (not who said or did what), we can be more successful -- not only in this particular situation, but in our careers in general. “Offer a solution based on purpose or at least lead the conversation in that direction,” Holcomb counsels. “When I decide to be right about finding a way to make that happen, then I elevate myself above the fault line.”