Let’s play the blame game!

Photo credit: Andy Mendelsohn

Let me ‘fess up here. This post started as a rage-post, after something that happened in the office, albeit a rage-post with what I hoped was some comedy.

One of the teams were doing a post-mortem on something that had gone badly wrong. Rather than naming the people involved, the people in the meeting labelled them as ‘person X’ and ‘person Y’. It was an honourable attempt to not apportion ‘blame’ but it missed the target completely on accountability and ownership.

And then the rage rose again upon hearing someone (let’s call her Jane) say “Yes, but won’t this encourage a blame culture?” In response to a suggested improvement to an automated system to notify everyone when the build was broken.

My instant knee-jerk response was to consider Janes’ reaction to be ridiculous. Of course it won’t encourage a blame culture! It will encourage accountability and responsibility! If you think it will encourage a blame culture then you already have one! But, you don’t have a blame culture. If you think you have a blame culture then you need to be playing the blame game. So, it’s about time someone formalised the rules of the blame game or we’re just going to keep blaming everything on a blame culture!

So, I wrote the rules of the blame game See below. A parody of a rule-book to hopefully amuse, and perhaps inform. But, I also did a lot of research into blame cultures, and while giggling to myself at my own jokes as I was writing them, I was also beginning to grow a considerable amount of empathy for Jane.

In fact, I came to the simple conclusion that Janes’ reaction was valid, and mine wasn’t. To put it simply, Jane did not feel safe, and was nervous of being blamed. If that’s how she felt, then that’s how she felt. Me saying “But it’s not about blame, it’s about ownership and responsibility!” doesn’t make any difference.

To say it one more time:

Jane did not feel psychologically safe. Jane was scared of a blame culture. And that’s how Jane felt.

I am sure I could have done a lot more about it at the time, had I not arrogantly assumed that just because I said ‘we don’t have a blame culture’ it meant we didn’t have one, and instead made more of an attempt to empathise with Jane. But I missed the opportunity (twice!).

In fact, if you dissect my gut response, I was blaming her for her beliefs. And actually, if you dig even deeper, I was blaming her for a blame culture that I was trying to deny even existed!

Most studies point to “control” being the reason people blame. We believe that blame gives us control. Blaming is how we vent and how we rage. And, in the case of Jane, I was venting about the fact that she was denying my belief that we didn’t have a blame culture. Dammit, I’m the boss. I’m in charge and I’m in control! If I say we don’t have a blame culture, we don’t have one. If you don’t agree, then you’re the problem. In other words it’s your fault!

Do I feel better for that? No. We had a blame culture. And having a blame culture is the antithesis of an ownership and accountability culture. We had a blame culture, and I didn’t even notice the opportunity to take responsibility for it and try to address it.

For more great stuff on blame, take a look at Brené Brown and especially this piece on blame.

Psychological safety

It’s simple really. If you want a team who are unafraid to take risks, constructively and effectively challenge existing notions and pre-conceived ideas, or even just ‘a plan’, then they need to be in an environment where they won’t get mocked or laughed at for speaking. Where they won’t be accused. Where they won’t be made to feel bad or shamed for making a mistake or creating a negative outcome. Where they won’t fear losing their status or their job. Where they won’t be scared.

In other words, they need to feel safe. Psychologically Safe.

If you want a team that’s trying to constantly improve through, in part, taking ownership, being accountable and feeling responsible for what they do, then they need to have psychological safety.

So, how do you get to this world of psychological safety? It starts at the top.

Note to readers:

This isn’t a post about what to do if you work somewhere where there’s a blame culture and you are a victim of that culture. There are plenty of places you can get help. Start by googling ‘Workplace bullying’ and looking at the Guardian’s page on the subject. But here are three small bits of advice for you:

1 - Talk to your line-manager. Air your concerns and experiences.

2 - Talk to your HR team. Express your concerns about what you feel is a blame culture.

3 - If you’re too scared to talk to your line-manager/HR or if you feel blamed as a result of doing so, then take steps further and take some legal or employment action… OR…go and find another job. No, you shouldn’t have to, but it’s not a healthy place to work. Go and be happy somewhere else.

This is aimed at the senior management team (AKA the ‘Leadership team’) because they are the people who need to take action here. It’s the responsibility of the Leadership team to create a safe environment for everyone. Blame cultures are always hierarchical cultures (even if that hierarchy has few levels), and as such it makes no difference what happens below the most senior level, if the Leadership team are not creating a safe environment for people to work in, then any other act aimed at creating one will flounder and fail. If a blame culture exists below the Leadership team, then they are facilitating it.

Starting at the top

Words are cheap. Talking about ‘not having a blame culture’ and ‘fostering ownership and accountability’ and ‘respect’ are pointless until you are demonstrably doing it. And that act of ‘doing it’ starts with the most senior team. The people who lead are the ones who have to set the tone.

Actions speak louder than words

Separate the language from the acts of doing. Start asking questions of your team. Always ask them if you are doing a good job or a bad one. Always ask for feedback on how you can do better. And, always be willing to apologise.

If you’re getting things wrong then say you’re sorry, work out what’s not working and try to improve. Recall that one of the most powerful and positive emotional experiences a child can have is when a parent apologises to them, this extends to adulthood. It’s validation for the individual and demonstrates your vulnerability which, in turn encourages and fosters empathy.

Trust and Honesty

The leadership team need to trust each other. This requires that they are honest with each other at all times. Any sniff of dishonesty will erode trust. They need to feel ‘psychologically safe’. They, no less than anyone else , don’t want to lose their job. As a leader (if, indeed, you are one), do you trust your peers? Can you honestly say ‘yes’ to that? If you can’t then you need to deal with that first.

Openness and vulnerability

A healthy team argues and disagrees until it comes to an agreement (or they disagree but commit to the majority). It’s important that everyone feels able to do this. Being too agreeable is a problem in these teams

As a leader, take every opportunity you get to demonstrate your willingness to accept responsibility and to show humility and vulnerability. Be open when you are wrong and demonstrate that to others.

It’s now clear to me that, whether I liked it or not, a problem existed. And if we’re in the territory of taking responsibility and being accountable, then I hold my hands up and state my responsibility for that state of affairs. Perhaps one of the first steps is to show contrition. To apologise. I didn’t notice it, and my version of action was a lot of angry hand-waving. I wasn’t taking seriously active steps beyond cheap talk to address it.

… So, where was I? Oh yes…

“If you have a blame culture, then you have to have a blame game and it’s about time someone formalised the rules of the blame game or we’re just going to keep blaming everything on a blame culture!”

So, here we go…

The Blame Game

Aim of the game

The primary aim of the blame game is to create a new hierarchical status quo or support an existing one. This is achieved through the successful identification of a culprit, any culprit, upon whom responsibility for a fault or failure can be pinned.


The blame game has four stages and is played over a number of turns

Game setup

Something goes wrong, breaks or fails. If the failure is hidden or obscured for long enough it maybe used again later when it results in greater failure or damage.

Stage 1. Triggering play.

Wherein it all kicks off

The game proper starts when a manager or supervisor aggressively exclaims:

“Who Fucked up?” or “Whose fault is this?” or “We need to find out who did this!” “What idiot left the door open!”

[or something similiarly blamey]

Stage 2. Finding the Blamee

Wherein we hunt until we find someone to blame

We identify the individual who caused the problem, or, if appropriate, we find a scapegoat. For the purposes of the game, this person is ‘The Blamee’. We also make it known to other concerned parties that we have identified the culprit.

Extra points are awarded for:

  • Jumping to a conclusion without supporting evidence
  • Exposing and naming ‘The Blamee’ to everyone else

Stage 3. Punish the blamee

Wherein we punish, or take action against a blamee.

The person who is deemed to have caused it is hauled over the coals (probably) by a more senior member of the team, publicly ridiculed and made to feel bad.

For extra points, the Blamee can be threatened with any number of fun penalties, from demotion through to firing. If you’re feeling kind, you can just have them spend a few days wearing the big cone with “D” on it around the office (the point value for this is surprisingly high!). They are thusly blamed and thus there is retribution.

Stage 4. Scoring

Wherein we progress up or down the ladder.

Clearly, you don’t score if you’re the blamee. Does it see you as the loser? maybe in the short-term, but see below for ‘Deciding the winner’

Tactics and strategies

There are many different strategies that can be adopted (in pursuance of what will inevitably be a hollow victory), Here are a few to help you get started:

A. Join the gang

We all want to avoid being the blamee. Blamees invariable lose the game. It’s a game of ‘tag’. So, when something goes wrong, let’s find someone upon whom we can pin responsibility. This is a fun game and helps to bond the team in a sort of tribal way, encouraging mob rule and anger. We’ve all seen how mob rule works. We’ve all seen people ganged up on. It’s super awesome. Feel the rage. Expressions like “What an idiot!” or “WTF did he do that?” should be readied and deployed at the first possible opportunity.

B. Deflecting the blame

Obviously, everyone makes mistakes. Well, most people, except those who avoid being the Blamee so often that you wonder if they ever get stuff wrong. So, when you get something wrong, follow their example: keep quiet about it. Successfully diverting of responsibility and deflection of blame through any tactics is allowable. At this point you should consider ‘Join the gang’.

C. Sycophancy

Get into secret conversations with ‘the boss’. Do lots of eye-rolling and sucking of teeth. Help hunt down the culprit! Make suggestions as to how best identify them. Really dig in there. If there’s no one left to blame, pinning it on someone who is no longer there is a great way to curry favour, especially if it’s someone who annoyed ‘the boss’!

D. No Risks!

Don’t take any risks. Many people find that avoiding -any- risks is the way to escape being the blamee.

E. Take on NO responsibilities!

Whatever you do, don’t accept responsibility for any process or act. Keep your head down and do your job. That way, less things are likely to go wrong, and if they do go wrong it’s going to be hard for anyone to pin it on you! And, you can use the best phrase of all: “I’m not doing that, it’s not my responsibility” to each and every request.

F. Be the boss

This can, if played well, radically reduce the likelihood of being the blamed. Even if you’re the top dog you’re going to need to learn to ‘manage up’ (which, in the case of the CEO/MD is about managing the board). The ‘Hierarchy game’ is another game we can explore at a later date. Manage upwards and make a big deal out of finding the culprit and you will surely stay on track… (until the track runs out).


There are no rules. It’s a dog eat dog world out there and there are no holds barred.

Number of players:

This game can be played by any number of players. But if you play it on your own, you’ve no one to blame but yourself!

Deciding the winner

Really? You want to know who wins?

No one wins.

Over time you will notice that no one takes risks or responsibility anymore. And the people you want to stay will leave.

Game over, man

So, how about we play a different game?

The Ownership Game

Create an environment where people aren’t scared. Encourage trust openness, and then accountability, responsibility and ownership. Celebrate successes and try to continuously improve rather than blame.

When things go wrong in the ownership game, remember that it’s negative points for blame and positive ones for recognising that it’s an opportunity to get better. And then ask the following questions:

  • Why did this happen?
  • What can we learn from this?
  • What can we do to improve?
  • What can we do to avoid it happening again?

And learn to empathise and encourage people to be accountable.

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