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Blame game is “contagious”

Nov. 20, 2009
Courtesy University of Southern California
and World Science staff

Don’t blame the messenger for these unpleasant findings, but the mere sight of some­one in an or­gan­iz­a­tion blamed for a prob­lem – cor­rectly or not – greatly in­creases the odds that the blame game will spread like a flu.

So say man­age­ment and or­gan­iz­a­tion ex­perts Na­than­ael Fast at the Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Cali­for­nia and La­ris­sa Tiedens of Stan­ford Un­ivers­ity in Cal­i­for­nia. They con­ducted four dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ments and found blame spreads quickly be­cause it makes peo­ple think their self-im­age is un­der as­sault.

The find­ings are to be pub­lished in the No­vem­ber is­sue of Jour­nal of Ex­pe­ri­men­tal So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy.

“When we see oth­ers pro­tect­ing their egos, we be­come de­fen­sive too,” said Fast, the lead au­thor. “We then try to pro­tect our own self-im­age by blam­ing oth­ers for our mis­takes.” He adds that in the long run, such be­hav­ior could hurt one’s reputa­t­ion and be de­struc­tive to an or­gan­iz­a­tion and fur­ther to our so­ci­e­ty as a whole.

Tiedens said the study did­n’t spe­cif­ic­ally look at the im­pact of hard eco­nom­ic times, but it un­doubtedly makes the prob­lem worse. “Blam­ing be­comes com­mon when peo­ple are wor­ried about their safe­ty in an or­gan­iz­a­tion,” she said. “There is likely to be more blam­ing go­ing on when peo­ple feel their jobs are threat­ened.”

Fast said that when pub­lic blam­ing be­comes com­mon prac­tice — es­pe­cially by lead­ers — its ef­fects on an or­gan­iz­a­tion can be in­sid­i­ous and with­er­ing: In­di­vid­u­als who are fear­ful of be­ing blamed for some­thing be­come less will­ing to take risks, are less in­no­va­tive or cre­a­tive, and are less likely to learn from their mis­takes.

“Blame cre­ates a cul­ture of fear,” Fast said, “and this leads to a host of neg­a­tive con­se­quenc­es for in­di­vid­u­als and for groups.” 

A man­ag­er can keep a lid on the be­hav­ior by re­ward­ing em­ploy­ees who learn from their mis­takes and by mak­ing a point to ac­knowl­edge pub­licly his or her own mis­takes, Fast said. Man­agers may al­so want to as­sign blame, when nec­es­sary, in pri­vate and of­fer praise in pub­lic to cre­ate a pos­i­tive at­ti­tude in the work­place.

Or, man­ag­ers could fol­low the lead of com­pa­nies such as In­tu­it, which im­ple­mented a “When Learn­ing Hurts” ses­sion where they cel­e­brat­ed and learn­ed from mis­takes, rath­er than point­ing fin­gers and as­signing blame. The blame con­ta­gion re­search pro­vides ev­i­dence that such a prac­tice can avoid neg­a­tive ef­fects, the re­search­ers argued.

An­y­one can be­come a blam­er, Fast said, but there are some com­mon traits. Typ­ic­ally, they are more ego de­fen­sive, have a high­er like­li­hood of be­ing nar­cis­sis­tic, and tend to feel chron­ic­ally in­se­cure.

Pres­ident Rich­ard Nix­on is one ex­am­ple the au­thors point to in the stu­dy. Nix­on is chron­icled to have har­bored an in­tense need to en­hance and pro­tect his self-im­age and, as a re­sult, made a prac­tice of blam­ing oth­ers for his short­com­ings. His form­er aides re­ported that that this ego-de­fen­siveness per­vad­ed his ad­min­istra­t­ion. It was the cul­ture of fear and blame that ul­ti­mately led to Nix­on’s po­lit­i­cal down­fall, Fast and Tiedens say.

The ex­pe­ri­ments showed that those who watched some­one blame an­oth­er for mis­takes went on to do the same thing, according to Fast and Tied­ens.  

In one ex­pe­ri­ment, half the par­ti­ci­pants were asked to read a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle about state Gov. Arn­old Schwarze­neg­ger blaming spe­cial in­ter­est groups for a con­tro­ver­sial spe­cial elec­tion that failed in 2005, cost­ing Ca­l­i­f­ornia $250 mil­lion. A sec­ond group read an ar­ti­cle in which the gov­er­nor took full re­spon­si­bil­ity for the fail­ure. Those who read the first piece were found more likely to blame oth­ers for their own, un­re­lat­ed short­com­ings.

An­oth­er ex­pe­ri­ment found that self-af­firm­a­t­ion in­oc­u­lat­ed par­ti­ci­pants from blame. The ten­den­cy for blame to spread van­ished in a group of par­ti­ci­pants who had the op­por­tun­ity to af­firm their self-worth. “By giv­ing par­ti­ci­pants the chance to bol­ster their self-worth we re­moved their need to self-pro­tect though sub­se­quent blam­ing,” said Fast.

The message from Fast and Tiedens to CEO’s: don’t be lame. Leave the blame game to oth­ers.


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Just seeing someone in an organization blamed for a problem – correctly or not – greatly increases the odds that the blame game will spread around like swine flu, according to new research. Management and organization experts Nathanael Fast at the University of South Carolina and Larissa Tiedens of Stanford University in California conducted four different experiments found that blame spreads quickly because it makes people think their self-image is under assault. The findings are to be published in the November issue of Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. “When we see others protecting their egos, we become defensive too,” said Fast, the lead author. “We then try to protect our own self-image by blaming others for our mistakes.” He adds that in the long run, such behavior could hurt one’s reputation and be destructive to an organization and further to our society as a whole. Tiedens said the study didn’t specifically look at the impact of hard economic times, but it undoubtedly makes the problem worse. “Blaming becomes common when people are worried about their safety in an organization,” she said. “There is likely to be more blaming going on when people feel their jobs are threatened.” Fast said that when public blaming becomes common practice — especially by leaders — its effects on an organization can be insidious and withering: Individuals who are fearful of being blamed for something become less willing to take risks, are less innovative or creative, and are less likely to learn from their mistakes. “Blame creates a culture of fear,” Fast said, “and this leads to a host of negative consequences for individuals and for groups.” A manager can keep a lid on the behavior by rewarding employees who learn from their mistakes and by making a point to acknowledge publicly his or her own mistakes, Fast said. Managers may also want to assign blame, when necessary, in private and offer praise in public to create a positive attitude in the workplace. Or, managers could follow the lead of companies such as Intuit, which implemented a “When Learning Hurts” session where they celebrated and learned from mistakes, rather than pointing fingers and assigning blame. The blame contagion research provides empirical evidence that such a practice can avoid negative effects in the culture of the organization. Anyone can become a blamer, Fast said, but there are some common traits. Typically, they are more ego defensive, have a higher likelihood of being narcissistic, and tend to feel chronically insecure. President Richard Nixon is one example the authors point to in the study. Nixon is chronicled to have harbored an intense need to enhance and protect his self-image and, as a result, made a practice of blaming others for his shortcomings. His former aides reported that that this ego-defensiveness pervaded his administration. It was the culture of fear and blame that ultimately led to Nixon’s political downfall, Fast and Tiedens say. The experiments showed that individuals who watched someone blame another for mistakes went on to do the same with others. In one experiment, half of the participants were asked to read a newspaper article about a failure by Governor Schwarzenegger who blamed special interest groups for the controversial special election that failed in 2005, costing the state $250 million. A second group read an article in which the governor took full responsibility for the failure. Those who read about the governor blaming special interest groups were more likely to blame others for their own, unrelated shortcomings, compared with those who read about Schwarzenegger shouldering the responsibility. Another experiment found that self-affirmation inoculated participants from blame. The tendency for blame to spread was completely eliminated in a group of participants who had the opportunity to affirm their self-worth. “By giving participants the chance to bolster their self-worth we removed their need to self protect though subsequent blaming,” said Fast.