Q. You work as part of a team that has made a serious mistake and lost business as a result. You know who dropped the ball and think that this person should be held accountable. How can you place the blame in an acceptable, professional way?
A. The last thing you want is a reputation for throwing co-workers under the bus. It’s far more politically savvy and productive to approach the mistake as a team problem.
“Recommend a post-mortem analysis of what happened, where you look at the chain of events, what occurred and what didn’t, and questions get answered in a good-faith process,” says Ben Dattner, a management consultant and author of “The Blame Game: How the Hidden Rules of Credit and Blame Determine Our Success or Failure.”
Even if it was clearly just one person who made the mistake, it’s helpful to look at ways the entire team can make sure the error isn’t repeated.
Jodi Glickman, president of Great On The Job, a communications training firm in Chicago, says that little is accomplished by focusing on one person’s mistake. “It’s not about the one error,” she says. “It’s about the breakdown in communications or the lack of understanding of responsibilities.”
You can, however, speak privately to the person. Let the person know you are aware that the mistake is his or her responsibility, Ms. Glickman says, and ask how you could help prevent it from happening in the future.
Q. What if someone blames you for something that isn’t your fault? Can you protect yourself without seeming overly defensive or childish?
A. Avoid a knee-jerk response and take a step back instead, says Lynn Taylor, chief executive of Lynn Taylor Consulting, a workplace productivity firm in Santa Monica, Calif., and author of “Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant.” She suggests putting yourself in the other person’s shoes to try to understand why he or she is blaming you. “Is the person threatened? Are they confused about your role versus their role?” she says. Show empathy to help defuse the tension, letting the person know you understand that there is reason for concern.
Then look at the duties associated with your job to determine which project tasks were within your scope of responsibility and which ones weren’t, and take that to your manager, says Jill A. Brown, an assistant professor of management at the College of Business and Economics at Lehigh University.
Keep your tone professional, and stick to the facts. Acknowledge that while you weren’t involved with the problem, you will be happy to help resolve it, Ms. Taylor says. “You can go to the person who dropped the ball and offer to brainstorm ways to approach the client again or recapture the business,” she says.
Q. How does all the finger-pointing in a workplace affect its culture?
A. Unfortunately, finger-pointing or scapegoating is fairly common, says Ms. Brown — especially recently, as many workers have been feeling insecure about their jobs. When people are insecure, they tend to shirk responsibility for their mistakes, she says.
A culture of blame can create a very difficult work environment, says Alina Tugend, who writes the Shortcuts column for The New York Times and is the author of “Better By Mistake.”
Research shows that people in the workplace tend to copy blaming as a behavior, whether consciously or unconsciously, thus perpetuating the problem, Ms. Tugend says. “Conversely,” she adds, “when people see others taking responsibility for their mistakes or failures, they also copy that, creating a better overall work environment.”
Q. Giving and receiving credit for a job well done is important, too. What’s the right way to give credit to others?
A. Credit motivates employees, Mr. Dattner says, and when there is a lack of it, people become demoralized and disengaged. But make sure that the amount of credit you give is commensurate with the accomplishment, Ms. Taylor says. “If it’s a small thing someone did, for example, don’t make it a public event,” she says. Instead, thank the person privately or by e-mail — and be specific about what you’re acknowledging.
Vary the way you pat colleagues on the back. “If you say ‘great job’ to someone at every staff meeting, it loses its meaning, so mix things up,” Ms. Taylor says. Give credit only when it’s truly deserved and then do so in a variety of ways and places — at meetings, during a lunch, in an e-mail, by text or by memo, using different language each time, she says.
Q. Although acknowledging others is important for overall morale, does it benefit you directly in any way?
A. Giving credit to others publicly positions you as a leader, Ms. Brown says, because the ability to give credit is an important dimension of leadership. It also makes others want to work with you and for you, Ms. Glickman says. “If you share credit, are conscious of other people’s agendas and are always trying to make your colleagues look good, people will love you,” she says. “They will want to be on your team.”