How not to play the blame game while working from home

One of the more challenging things about working from home during the COVID-19 crisis probably isn’t the working from the home part, but rather managing your work relationships while you do. And a huge issue we’ve been hearing about is what seems to be people shifting the blame when things go wrong. It’s an especially common issue when there aren’t the traditional means of day to day overseeing of any project or work done, and the chain of responsibility can
seem blurred.

The blamer in chief

If social media is anything to go by, tempers are flaring, and people are oversharing. Case in point, on April 27th Donald Trump tweeted “Blame the Democrats for any “lateness” in your Enhanced Unemployment Insurance. I wanted the money to be paid directly, they insisted it be paid by states for distribution. I told them this would happen, especially with many states which have old computers.”

Let’s unpack that tweet for a moment. Imagine that you’re the CEO of a huge corporation and you’re annoyed at the actions of some of your team members. Heck, you’re furious at the actions at a large number of your team members.

What would be the best move? In a corporate setting, you’d likely meet with your most trusted advisors and hash out an extensive plan before even thinking of responding. You might spend time crafting a response that addresses the issue, discusses the pros and cons, and perhaps even utilizes corporate PR to deliver the final messaging. What you would not do is use a social media platform to denigrate the people you dislike. It’s just bad business practices. But placing blame on others when cornered isn’t a new practice at all.

A study on blame

In March 2019, the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health published a research paper titled “The effect of admitting fault versus shifting blame on expectations for others to do the same.” The document authored by Elizabeth B. Lozano and Sean M. Laurent began with a quote from Roman historian Titus Livius (“Livy”) who said, “Men are only clever at shifting blame from their own shoulders to those of others.” As described in the paper, to avoid appearing blameworthy, people “quickly point their fingers at anyone but themselves when something goes wrong.”

Traditional blame vs. the work from home variety

So, what happens when something does go wrong? If you were still working in a traditional workspace, you might be able to discuss it with your supervisor or colleagues, but without a unified workspace things can feel a lot more free-falling right now. And it’s also a bit trickier to change the trajectory of whatever got messed up if you only find out about it when everyone is already pointing fingers at everyone else.

Beware of blame contagion

In the paper on admitting fault vs. shifting blame, the authors discuss something they refer to as “downstream consequences” in which when something gets screwed up, the blame can continue to flow until it lands. They also refer to another concept of “blame contagion” in which once the blame starts, it can be hard to stop until everyone is blaming everyone else instead of working to fix the problem.

Stop what you’re doing and create a plan

So, how can you avoid playing the blame game, especially when you can’t see your coworkers face to face? Take time now to set up a solid plan for whatever needs to be accomplished moving forward. And be as detail-oriented as you possibly can, including timing, responsibilities, projections, contingency plans, and more.

In their book Start Within, co-authors Karen Holst and Douglas Ferguson talk about building up and leading teams. They also shared the key to avoiding the blame game, which is “making sure that everyone is well informed and that all goals are clearly defined from the beginning.” And it shouldn’t be left to a manager or supervisor to create or define these goals. “It is important that even while you are working remotely, you co-create these goals together and establish a way of working, so everyone feels comfortable.” If you set up an action plan and even a contingency plan for what happens if everything gets messed up, Holst said: “The blame game can be avoided if everyone feels like they have a stake in what is going on, and their voice was heard.”

Fix it before you change it

If you do feel as if your colleagues or team has already started to blame each other, this might be a good time to hit pause. Speak to team members one-on-one and find out their grievances and perceived responsibilities. Then try to trace back where things fell apart. If you think it would help, schedule a team meeting where everyone has time to air either their concerns and then their plans for a better future wireframe. And then stick to it.

Check in with your team regularly and pay attention if some workers mention the same issues repeatedly. Hopefully, in this way, you’ll be able to fix the problem before the entire team falls into a pit of blame, they can’t seem to move on from.