Five Truths About Blame and How it Impacts Our Performance

Kevin Eikenberry

By: Kevin Eikenberry - Chief Potential Officer, The Kevin Eikenberry Group

Category: Leadership

Valerie comes storming in the house after playing with the neighbor kids. Her face is red and she is clearly upset. Before her mother can say anything she shouts, “Stan hit me!” More dialogue continues to come from young Valerie’s mouth, but it is a litany of this same comment, stated in different nearly hysterical ways. She explains that she was minding her own business, and Stan, for no reason at all, hit her.

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Mom wants to know more of the story and when Valerie has calmed down she succeeds in better understanding the situation. Mom probes for understanding because she is pretty sure there is more to the story than Valerie is initially sharing – she knows that Valerie probably did something, however small, that provoked Stan.

Eventually she learns that Valerie had been a part of something on the playground at school that though Valerie said “wasn’t her fault” most likely had an impact on Stan’s reaction later on in the neighborhood.

As parents and adults we’ve seen or experienced a story similar to this many times. We ask questions to understand the situation, recognizing that there are “two sides to every story” and knowing that it’s unlikely one person is completely to blame.

Yet as adults, when thinking about our own situations, we are more like Valerie than we realize (or want to admit). Far too often, consciously or not, when faced with an unpleasing or negative outcome we look externally to see who is to blame.

We couldn’t finish on time because the network was down (it wasn’t my fault – I’ve got to have the network).
I didn’t get the input I was promised. (It wasn’t my fault.)
The people weren’t hired on schedule so I didn’t have the resources I needed. (It wasn’t my fault – how could I do it without resources?)
I don’t think I need to go on.

As you think about the situations you just read, and the other examples that came to your mind as you read, you begin to realize how prevalent blame is in our lives.

The problem is that blame truly is a problem – it saps energy and productivity and eventually reduces our ability to create the success we want for ourselves and our organizations.

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Here are four truths about blame, specifically four reasons why it is such a problem, and one single key to help you reduce the impact blame has on your performance and success.

Blame is externally focused. When we blame someone or look to others to explain why we weren’t able to do something, we aren’t thinking about what is in our control. Because blame is externally focused, we don’t have to take any responsibility for the failure, delay or problem. After all, it was someone else’s fault, not mine.

Blame stops learning. When we explain outcomes as the direct result of the actions of others, we aren’t thinking about what we need to learn – or what we might need to do differently next time. Until we internalize our explanation, until we look at what role we played in the situation that exists, we won’t learn anything, and therefore won’t change anything in the future.

Blame stops action. Think about it. If we haven’t had the need to learn anything new, if we aren’t responsible for the situation, we don’t have to do anything except wait for others to improve in order to improve our situation in the future. When we blame others, we don’t need to take action to improve our behaviors or outcomes, do we?

Blame is contagious. When kids begin to blame other kids for their own misfortunes, the other kids blame back. Blame can quickly become a vicious cycle on the playground – and in the office. Blame is like other negative attitudes – it spreads quickly. And as leaders when others see us blaming, we have created an open season for additional blame.

These four facts don’t help us move past blame – they only help us understand the problems falling into the “blame game” can cause.

But here’s the truth that can help us.

Blame is a choice. While Stan did hit Valerie, Valerie chose to blame Stan rather than think about what role she played in the overall episode. In our simple example, Valerie’s actions did contribute to the situation she didn’t like. In the more adult examples we outlined above, we played a role in the outcome too.

Of course the network going down wasn’t our fault (unless we are in I-T), but we chose to work on the project at the last moment and so the network problem became our problem.

Of course not having resources may have an impact on us, but what could we have done to check on the status of the hiring that might have allowed us to change our plan, or how could we have assisted in getting those people hired?

Again, I could go on, but I’m sure you see my point. The choice that we have when it comes to blame is to decide if we are going to focus on the external factors in our situations (things that may be outside our control) or the internal ones (the things we can control). Once we make this fundamental choice, in effect taking responsibility for our situation, we will melt the impacts of blame from our lives rapidly.

Blame stops both learning and action, and it is very contagious. And when we stop thinking externally – and make a decision to be personally responsible – we have made a choice to reduce the negative impacts blame will have in our lives.

The choice is yours.

Copyright © 2006 - All Rights Reserved, Kevin Eikenberry and The Kevin Eikenberry Group.

Kevin Eikenberry is a leadership expert and the Chief Potential Officer of The Kevin Eikenberry Group, a learning consulting company that helps Clients reach their potential through a variety of training, consulting and speaking services. To receive your free special report on Unleashing Your Potential go to or call us at (317) 387-1424 or 888.LEARNER.

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