Insights at UBC Sauder

Why everyone loses at the blame game

Posted 2017-06-26

When workplace mistakes happen, bosses can be quick to point the finger. Some say tough love makes employees stronger, but a new UBC Sauder School of Business article finds the demoralizing effects of what researchers call “swift blame” not only hurts employees, but also the bottom line.

UBC Sauder professor Daniel Skarlicki, the article’s lead author, discusses the damaging effects of the blame game and alternative approaches managers can try.

Why is swift blame prevalent in the workplace?

Today’s organizations typically move at a fast pace and face a lot of uncertainty, so value is placed on doing something about problems when they arise and on resolving them quickly. The result is a pressure on managers to locate blame, assign sanctions and then assume that the problem has been resolved. This reinforces the fact that it is often easier to blame someone than to identify problems within the system that may have contributed to the wrongdoing.

How is swift blame detrimental to organizations and employees?  

Swift blame can lead to sanctions against perceived wrongdoers that are unfair and non-transparent, leading to resentment, reputational damage and expensive lawsuits. It can impede information flow and organizational learning because of a fear of failure and resistance to understand the causes of errors, stifling innovation and growth. It can also cause managers to overlook alternative solutions to organizational problems, resulting in missed opportunities. Swift blame can stigmatize the blamed party and generate resentment, counterproductive behaviour and disengagement among employees, which can result in lost productivity.

How can managers avoid the impulse to quickly assign blame?

Organizations can benefit from a “no blame” approach, meaning errors are not viewed as reasons to discipline and punish, but rather as opportunities to learn and grow. Managers can also systematically apply legal principles and procedures in order to decide whether an employee acted inappropriately in a specific situation, and if so, what punishment would be appropriate. Mindfulness training, which is designed to slow judgment and reduce emotional reactivity, is another option that can be used to reduce swift blame.

However, it’s important to note these solutions are not easily implemented, since they require the parties involved to take risks and invest time and effort. It’s easier to find someone to blame, assume the problem has gone away and move on. In some organizations, these solutions call for a complete organizational culture transformation, but in others, they can be achieved through changes in policy and procedures, and managerial training.

The article, co-authored by UBC Sauder professor Karl Aquino and PhD candidate Adam Kay, recently appeared online in the Academy of Management Perspectives.