Most of us don't like being blamed for things for the simple reason that we tend to punish failures. When things go wrong, it's tempting to use blame as a weapon—and not just to hold people accountable for errors. It lets you put others on the defensive while shifting attention away from you.
The most successful people, though, tend to use blame differently. They recognize that it's important to understand whom and what to fault for slip-ups and shortcomings, not to assign punishments but to make sure that the sources of those failures aren't as likely to come up again.
In other words, there are more effective ways to point blame than many of us are used to. Here are three of them.
Blame becomes a negative rather than a positive when people don't accept responsibility for missteps. When many of us mess up, we tend to externalize the source of the problem. It's simply easier to accept a failure if you can blame the surrounding circumstances rather than yourself.
Undoubtedly, circumstances do play a role in whether any undertaking succeeds or fails. None of us acts in a vacuum. But even if you think you did everything perfectly and it was just events that were out of your control that led to things falling short, you still failed at one key thing: recognizing those circumstances early enough to adjust course.
When you start to understand why a project failed, make sure you include yourself in the mix of contributing factors. It isn't about forced humility. It's simply to learn something useful for next time. After all, the one you thing you'll always have the most control over is yourself.
When you analyze a failure, you're also likely to find actions that other people took that contributed to the problem. (Many of us have no trouble doing that.) And there's usually a tendency to want to mete out some sort of punishment for those bad outcomes. Resist that temptation. The only way people can learn from their mistakes is if they're willing to recognize and accept them and then, afterward, still have a fair chance at improving their performance.
There are at least two benefits to this less punitive approach. First, when people begin realizing that their mistakes can become learning opportunities rather than liabilities, they'll become more willing to own up to them. Colossal failures typically result from a cascade of errors rather than a single one. So the faster that people can admit to their mistakes, the easier it is for the entire team to recover from them.
Second, it's often easier to learn from failures than from successes. Sometimes projects succeed even though people have done many of the wrong things. So the wisest people are actually those who own up to their mistakes (even when the outcomes are mostly favorable)—they're the ones who are really interested in improving.
Of course, there are times where people cross the line from failure to negligence, which is a punishable offense. It's just that many of us think that line is closer than it is.
I've seen companies convene whole teams just to understand failures. That can be a great first step, but behind the scenes, other employees are rolling their eyes. Typically, the team that investigates the failure writes a report, a low-level manager or two gets fired, and the report gathers dust on a shelf.
Going through the exercise of understanding the sources of failure isn't complete until you also find ways to change procedures. The whole point of using blame productively is to minimize the chance that you'll repeat familiar failures. Sometimes people don't need to be punished, they just need additional training.
Or perhaps the environment needs to evolve so that it's easier for employees to behave in ways that are conducive to success. It could be that your company is inadvertently rewarding behavior that makes failure more likely, but by rushing to assign blame, you won't be able to see that.
Whatever the case, when the causes for failures are uncovered, it's important to actually do something about them. Reporting a problem is often stressful for employees. They generally won't bother to go through the effort if they think their suggestions will be ignored. Companies that have a track record of fixing problems create a problem-solving spirit in their workforces, not a blameful one.
Finally, leaders need to start by acknowledging any role they've played in failures. By "blaming" themselves for any genuine errors, they model an accountable mind-set they'd like others to adopt. Anytime you're trying to change procedures, you first need to change the people who'll implement them. And your employees will be more motivated to engage seriously in new procedures when they know their leaders are also sharing the fault in slipping up—and assuming the responsibility for bouncing back.