Star Tribune

Avoid the blame game

By Anna Maravelas

When workforces are highly stressed they either pull together or discover that their resources are being depleted by internal power struggles and mistrust.

After fifteen years of consulting in workplace conflict, I’ve come to believe that it’s not the external stress that ultimately determines healthy organizations from toxic ones. The pivotal difference lies in the cultural response to frustration.

When well-meaning, but overtaxed leaders are hard pressed to explain losses in productivity, the seductive but slippery slope of blame beckons.

Organizations that tolerate this reaction will see a dramatic decrease in collaboration and corresponding increases in contempt and cynicism.

In every conflict, we unconsciously choose between self-righteousness or effectiveness. When caught up in a self-righteous perspective we are quick to view others as adversaries. If we adopt this view, their missteps become our secret delights. We are loathe to acknowledge their contributions, and our responses become increasingly distorted as we attempt to avoid behaviors that might contribute to their status or success.

If we want more positive outcomes we must start with a dramatically different perspective, and combine warmth with genuine curiosity about the other party’s world view. If we assume they are competent and motivated to contribute, the resulting combination of curiosity and positive regard will gain their cooperation.

Rather than looking for the reasons behind problems, blame-based leaders torpedo their own effectiveness by adopting an attitude of “search for stupidity.”

For example, at a troubled high-tech company the vice president of sales ridiculed their lagging engineering department as “arrogant and unmotivated.” However, during meetings designed to de-escalate the tension, he gained surprising insights into their constraints. Humbled by what he learned, he became their unlikely defender and diligent in his efforts to dissuade his sales team from side-stepping their systems.

Targeting a common enemy provides an impressive smoke screen of activity but at the cost of effectiveness. Consider this hypothetical situation: three police officers return from a dangerous run to discover that the department’s request for bulletproof vests has been denied by their city council.

Frustrated and stung by their seeming lack of support, the officers approach the chief, who ridicules the “incompetent and spineless” decision makers. His condemnation temporarily increases his bravado and their sense of camaraderie, yet this approach will cost him dearly. Convinced that the city council is inept, they will sidestep the opportunity to address the problem, or educate the council about their needs. Pumped up and self-righteous, their behavior will widen the gap between the two groups.

If blame becomes the chief’s habitual response, the officers will become quietly cynical about work. Eventually these once proud individuals will feel foolish for caring. However, the chief will not link his responses to declines in their morale and he will compound his error with additional accusations.

Over time his employees will adopt the chief’s reactions as their own and relationships will deteriorate throughout the organization.

Contempt is costly

Contempt between leaders is especially costly since employees rely on management for stability. I was asked to help three leaders of a hospital’s dialysis unit who were in such a bitter power struggle that it threatened patient safety. Each of the three leaders told me privately that they alone had the backing of the unit. With their permission I surveyed the staff. The supervisors were shocked to discover that the employees were equally angry with all three and were disgusted with their divisive behaviors. Confronted with the data, the leaders’ self-righteousness faded. They eventually apologized to the staff and combined efforts to restore their reputations as competent department heads.

Poorly designed systems of compensation or unaligned performance measures are often a hidden cause of conflict. In a large, after-sales division, the director of the warehouse was measured on his ability to keep the parts inventory at a bare minimum. His nemesis, the director of service, was rewarded for the percentage of orders his team shipped within 24 hours of receipt. At the conclusion of the assessment it was clear that the tension between the two men was directly related to their incompatible performance measures. Yet for three years the executive team, which was divided into factions over the issue, had been unable to see the systemic nature of the conflict.

A department head at a local television station successfully shifted her approach to problem solving. After the next serious snafu she called her staff together, but rather than plunging into her usual inquiry to establish blame, she took a deep breath and stated, “We have to figure out how our systems failed and what we can do to prevent it from reoccurring.” The relief in the room was palpable and instead of the typical silence people immediately began sharing their perspectives. Her approach was not only more effective in solving the problem but her staff was buoyed by the success of their combined efforts.

I’ve intervened in over 100 serious, and sometimes dangerous situations, and in every case warring groups have abandoned their efforts to discredit each other in exchange for the possibility of connection and resolution.

I haven’t yet found a group that wanted to remain deadlocked in escalated conflict. Leaders and organizations flounder with power struggles not because of malice but because they lack the skills and insights to repair the downward spiral that blame triggers. If they are offered a reasonable process they will seize it with relief.

The next time you’re faced with the melt-down of a key process, rather than searching for stupidity, search for complexity, unseen interdependencies, misunderstandings and surprise. Assume that most individuals are driven by the desire to contribute, to connect with others and to be valued for their insights and skills.

When you develop an intolerance to blame and see it for what it really is–distorted, destructive, and ultimately self-defeating–you’ll take a powerful step toward creating a tough, resilient organization that endures.

Anna Maravelas is an adjunct faculty member of the Universities of Minnesota and St. Thomas and the founder of Thera Rising, a consulting firm in Arden Hills, Minn. They advise clients on workplace trust, conflict and cohesiveness, and conduct seminars. Their website is