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Playing the Blame Game the Right Way

A common reason for workplace tension is biased judgement. We regularly form opinions of others with only of a fraction of the relevant information. When musing over our own actions, however, it’s a different story. When we judge ourselves, we nearly always deflect the blame on circumstances; while in our judgements of others, we often assign the full responsibility to them. This skewed view of reality can have serious consequences, most notably the obstruction of communication and productivity, not to mention the delusional thinking that these daydreams can cause. The good news is that we can change ourselves, resolve those tensions, and make the workplace a paradise of golden contentment. Well… at least better than it was.

The technical name for this problem is fundamental attribution error; but what it all comes down to is the difference between judging oneself and judging another person. What’s that difference? Let’s look at an example: meet Jack. Jack, a salesman, would be as content and pleased as anyone could be… were it not for Jill, his associate. She hasn’t met her sales quota in weeks, she’s dragging the company down, and worst of all… she doesn’t seem to care. She’s also been a little cranky. Does Jack blame Jill? Well maybe a little. After all, she could at least try to do better. And on the surface, we can agree with Jack. Based on the information we have, we’ve made an accurate judgement: Jill should really step it up.

But now let’s look at some information that Jack does not have. Jill’s marriage is on the rocks, she’s getting her master’s degree at night, and going through some financial troubles. Jill’s in a tough situation now, and her sales quota just isn’t at the top of her priorities. But it turns out that she’s a driven, smart and confident worker that is going to get through this and come out a lot stronger. That’s some information that Jack and I didn’t have, but makes all the difference.

What’s fundamental attribution disorder? It’s making the mistake that Jack and I made earlier – attributing someone’s problem to fundamental personality issue, rather than a tough situation the person is in. In short blaming the person, instead of their circumstances.

We make a similar mistake in judgements of ourselves. Instead of exaggerating the dispositional role, and stifling the role of the situation, we see our disposition as a direct response to the situation. We blow the situational role out of proportion and denigrate the response of our personality to that of a passive reaction.

Why this double standard? Simply put, we’re expecting to come up with similar judgements based on vastly different sources. We judge others based on all we have: their actions. In judging ourselves, however, we know the intent, the circumstances, how they shape our actions, and a myriad of other factors; and let’s face it: we may be a little biased.

              Psychologists say that we make this mistake in three common ways.

  • We explain our inconsistencies as positive attributes in themselves. “Sure I didn’t help him, but I believe in self-sufficiency and accountability, and this will help him in the long run.” Rather than “I didn’t help him because I’m swamped today, and I don’t like him much anyway.”
  • We imagine how we would react in tough situations. Anything we could do, becomes everything we would The only honest way to describe this is daydreaming. It’s not rooted in reality, and it’s unfair to ourselves and to others. Overcoming crises in our minds is in no way similar to living them in real life.
  • We justify blame through the “just world theory.” “People in tough situations normally deserve it.” Or, “What goes around comes around.” But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that this doesn’t happen. Sometimes people have a run of bad luck, and it’s how they handle the situation that should define them, not that they’re in the situation.

The common thread between these types of bad judgements lead us to an error that we make all too frequently: we overestimate the role of the personality, and we underestimate the role of the situation. These two miscalculations are the only ingredients needed for a toxic environment and workplace stress.

For a problem so simple and clearly defined, unfortunately the answer isn’t quite so clear cut. An obvious way is to try to get to know people you work with – talk with them, share stories, and help each other out. The more you identify with and learn about your coworkers, the greater chance any judgement of them will be based on relevant information, and not merely the face value of their actions.

Another way, and this isn’t quite so instinctive, is to give them the benefit of the doubt. This isn’t quite so passive as it sounds though. Granted, we should suspend judgment until we have the information, but until that, we can and should do a number of things: most importantly ask if they need help, or if they want to talk about it. This can make all the difference even if the problem does happen to be because of personality. It is essential to cultivate a sense of the pervasiveness of the situational role. This is often the more important attribution, yet grossly underexamined. Our reaction to the troubles of others often attributes those troubles to the disposition and personality of the individual, and these traits do not always reflect the reality.

It is, however, important to realize that sometimes the problem is the individual’s personality. But the point of all this is that judging people based on their disposition can have huge consequences. The dispositional attributes of individuals are only a fraction of the picture, and while it may be flattering to our ego to judge them, or imagine our actions if we were in their shoes; the reality is that these delusional daydreams can negatively impact communication, team chemistry, and productivity. So next time, play the blame game right: look at the whole picture.

Source: Psychology. Wade, Carole. Upper Saddle River, NJ. 2017. Pg. 268-270


Sat Sindhar

Sat Sindhar is the MD at and is a technology expert with 25+ years’ experience in HR software and business management. He is passionate about changing the way business leaders think about people management, and firmly believes that by creating a culture of innovation, equality and trust, that companies… MORE >

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