Lectern

By Steve Kelman

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The dynamics of taking blame in the workplace

We had another interesting presentation by a candidate for a junior faculty search in public management at the Kennedy School. 
Last time, we heard about the effects of gossip in the workplace (I wrote about that one here). This candidate's topic was taking the blame -- more specifically, how often do people take the blame for workplace problems with "diffuse causes" (that is, where there is not one specific person in the team or organization who is clearly responsible for the problem), and what are the consequences for individuals who do take blame?

It's no surprise that people are not inclined to rush forward to take blame in situations such as these. The researcher asked people at a consulting firm to write about a recent incident where something had gone wrong in their team or organization.  He then asked if anybody had stepped forward to take responsibility for the problem.  In most cases, nobody did.

Interestingly, in cases where the problem involved a competence failure (where blame-taking was somewhat more likely), often the blame-taker was a subordinate in the organization. If the problem pertained to integrity, fewer came forward to take the blame, but those who did were all managers or executives.

Still more interesting, in a separate study, the researcher presented people with scenarios involving workplace problems involving both factors. Some experimental subjects were asked how an acceptance of blame ("I was responsible") would affect their evaluations of the blame-taker; others, presented with the same scenario, were asked how a statement of remorse ("I am sorry for what happened") or evasion (unwillingness to take responsibility or express remorse) would affect evaluations. It turned out that subjects on average gave the blame-taker a higher performance rating, and were less likely to fire them, compared with the remorseful or the evasive. Contrary to expectations perhaps, the blame-taker was rewarded for taking the blame.

I wonder whether people in government are more likely, less likely, or equally likely as the researcher's subjects (who work for a private consulting firm) to take blame. One might predict on the one hand that they might be more likely to accept blame, because greater job security in government means they are less likely to be fired. On the other hand, in a government environment, there are so many external actors -- especially politicians and the media -- engaged in the politics of blame that government employees might consider it really damaging to accept blame, thus feeding these forces. As I mentioned to the researcher, it would be interesting to reproduce his studies in government workplaces.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jan 14, 2011 at 7:26 PM


Reader Comments

Wed, Jan 19, 2011 Mike D. Arlington, VA

The problem with assumption of blame or responsibility when results are less than optimal in a government environment is that negative results are rarely used for positive reflection. Some of our failures can lead to our biggest successes if lessons learned are captured and analyzed. However, that often doesn't happen because we live in pressure-cooker environments where the microscope is always on. This deters many from stepping up to assume blame in the government and stifles learning opportunities. Once problems are identified, one function of the "fix" should also be capturing the reasons behind the problem so that they don't have to be re-lived later. Building a culture where "negative begets positive" is much more productive than one where employees are chastised and branded for life after problems arise. When people know that it's okay to be human they will be more likely to assume blame and strive to get better rather than regress into workplace wallflowers.

Tue, Jan 18, 2011

If the candidate did not do research on public organizations, it does seem to beg the question of why he was a candidate for a search in public management

Fri, Jan 14, 2011 Gorg.

Professor: you know the answer to your question, with certainty, but I admire your desire to research it even-handedly just the same.

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