Everyone makes mistakes. In fact, human error can occur in an almost infinite number of ways. But at work, individuals who are experienced and knowledgeable are expected to anticipate negative outcomes and avoid them. When workplace errors inevitably occur, employees have two choices: accept responsibility or play the “blame game.”
Blamers share a common characteristic — they find it easier to attack a person or situation than to tackle a problem. But there isn’t just one type of person who becomes a blamer.
A number of different causes can cause blaming behavior. Some people consider it a sign of weakness to accept responsibility, or they view any criticism as a personal attack. Other people may be frightened to face what they’ve done because in the past they’ve suffered punishment for making mistakes. Blamers may be protecting their egos or reputations. They may be bullies or the type of person who just can’t admit they’re wrong. At worst, they may be sly manipulators looking for opportunities to benefit at the expense of others.
The three steps for dealing with negative people are the same for blamers as they are for other negative behaviors like whining and complaining:
- listen to the person who’s being negative,
- demonstrate you understand the message, and
- try to resolve the issue.
The difference between dealing with whiners and complainers and dealing with blamers is in how you implement step three — resolving the issue.
Dealing with blamers is an essential workplace skill. When you work with other people, it’s inevitable that someday you’ll be blamed for something. It may be something simple — you forgot to send a reminder about a meeting — or something major that can affect your career — your actions lost a client or caused an accident. And sometimes the blamers will be absolutely right.
How you resolve issues with blamers depends on whether the responsibility for the issue lies with you or with them:
- when you’re at fault — When you’re at fault, owning up to your responsibility is best. Acknowledge what the blamer is saying, and ask what you can do to help. Once you take ownership of the issue, you can apologize, clarify what happened and why, seek a solution, and move on. It’s important to make clear that you’re more interested in resolving the issue than in being right.
- when they’re at fault — When blamers are at fault, you’ll need to confront them. Blamers will usually stop their negative behavior when you give them specific examples of how their mistakes, miscalculations, or omissions caused the issue. Don’t be vague. Blamers find it difficult to shift the blame when you’re precise.
Remember that blamers associate responsibility with negative consequences. They won’t respond to an attack. Be nonthreatening and diplomatic when you present your position. This will help blamers feel like it’s safe to accept responsibility if they’re wrong and will give them ownership in the solution if they’re right. It also helps to create empathy. For example, you might tell them about a time when you made a mistake, accepted responsibility, and moved on.
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