BLAMING: A leadership woe

Blame is an allegation that someone or something outside of oneself is responsible. Singling out any individual or a group for a flaw or transgression is called scapegoating and happens at all levels. J.F Kennedy’s assassination investigation went on for 10 months and finally Warren commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was the assassin. Conspiracy or individual scapegoating, till date it is inconclusive. The upper echelons be it leadership group (BP oil spillage at Gulf of Mexico), or team level in an organization (Nokia lambasting the Symbian team), or scapegoating a country as a whole (Greece may pull the Euro down) or environment (Wal-Mart’s 1st Quarter 2014 earnings miss attributed to brutal winter), blaming as a phenomenon is pervasive. Scapegoating, blaming and censuring all are thinking infirmities and today a leadership concern.



Let us get a bit technical with respect to the mind and attempt to understand this. Melanie Klein through her objects relationship theory explicates that an infant’s mind from birth to about 4 or 6 months remains in a paranoid schizoid position and after 6 months remains in depressive position. Depressive position is not depression; it is an important growth phase of the child when the child’s ego is getting developed. In the depressive phase (from 6 months onwards), due to strengthening of the ego through defense mechanisms, the child learns to cope. These defense mechanisms develop from 6 months onwards till adulthood and depend on the external environment to which the infant is exposed. There are 4 levels of categorization for defense mechanisms:

Level 1: Pathological e.g. Denial, distortion, delusional projection etc.
• Level 2: Immature e.g. Acting out, idealization, passive aggression etc.
• Level 3: Neurotic e.g. Dissociation, displacement, repression, withdrawal, isolation etc.
• Level 4: Mature e.g. Patience, acceptance, tolerance, mercy, forgiveness, identification, sublimation, emotional self-sufficiency etc.

All of us seek Level 4 i.e. mature defense mechanisms and different people are at varying stages of development throughout life.


In the first 6 months the infant does not have a mature ego hence is defenseless and becomes anxious (paranoid) when the good object is not available. What are these good objects and bad objects? The infant, till first 4 months doesn’t recognize the mother as a comprehensive whole. The infant only is in touch with the breast and considers it as an object that will aid its survival. When the infant is hungry and breast-fed the infant considers this as the good breast and introjects i.e. identifies with the good, a kind of taking credit. If due to some reason mother is asleep and infant doesn’t get milk when hungry, it identifies this moment as ‘the bad breast’ i.e. the breast that is not available and projects this bad experience outside of itself, called ‘projection’. The infant in its mind construes that it is the bad breast due to which he/she is starving thereby passing the blame outside of itself. The rudiments of the blame game is laid here but the infant is doing this only for its survival else it will be distraught with anxiety. The infant hasn’t developed the cognitive capacity to understand that both good and bad breast belong to the same mother. This phenomenon is valid for bottle-fed babies too hence the term ‘object relations’ and in this case the bottle becomes the object. This process, i.e. whatever is happening in the infant’s mind is called splitting.


From a cognitive standpoint, for every calamitous or detrimental incidents that happen in a person’s life, he/she unconsciously keeps attributing the blame outside of oneself (projection), this is how the mind is hardwired with years of conditioning and we are just unaware about it’s occurrence. This is called explanatory attribution. For example if Marie has assiduously prepared for an exam but gets suboptimal results, she may attribute it to a very tough paper set or stringent correction criteria but it doesn’t occur to her that her ‘formula applicability’ in the exam could be flawed. By attributing the blame to extraneous factors, she absolves herself of anxiety. This psychological splitting i.e. taking credit for the good and discarding the bad and attributing it to others, over time with  unconscious practice, cumulate into a core structure formation and people bring this core structure of theirs to the work place hence a culture of blaming is a serious leadership concern in today’s working environment that shrieks out for collaborative models.


Human beings love meaning creation and have a tendency to make sense out of any situation (strange noise, unusual facial expression etc.) by fitting it into a familiar explanatory framework. Meaning creation is ubiquitous and when one is unable to find a coherent pattern one feels annoyed and helpless hence even if the constructed meaning is incorrect one feels it is better than a state of ignorance. This is a thinking trap as it will nurture within oneself, erroneous meaning constructs and one may live life with other irrational fears. In the movie ‘The Sixth Sense’, the boy Cole Sear (played by Haley Joel Osment) is seeing dead people and is petrified and distraught. Bruce Willis (playing Dr Malcolm Crowe a child psychologist) is trying hard to enter his world and at one point vexes over his Dictaphone and says, “His pathology is more severe than initially assessed, he is suffering from visual hallucinations, paranoia, some kind of school age schizophrenia. Medication, hospitalization may be required. I’m not helping him.” Later Dr Malcolm hears an old recording in which one of his former patients when left silent in a room seem to hear some voices which even Dr Malcolm could now hear. He goes to the boy and says to him ‘why don’t you listen to these dead people and see what they want’. Astonishingly the boy starts healing. Though anecdotal and only a fictional movie, a meaning attached by the therapist to this experience which was inexplicable to the boy was enough for him to heal. The power of fear diminishes once an explanation is attached to it hence people adopt this format of providing themselves with an explanatory framework. Awareness is the key and with awareness one begins to get comfortable even with ‘a blank’, no explanations attached till facts corroborate to it. Some incident has occurred or someone has said something derogatory at work but without seeking clarification and facts one need not assort it immediately into a framework to create meaning out of it. Be comfortable with those non-attribution moments. Over time this will begin to encourage a non-blame culture.


Interpersonal attribution happens when two or more people are involved. When intensely questioned, one succumbs to presenting data with such manoeuvrability attempting to exonerate oneself from the blame and incriminating the other. Children if they have done something that is restrained, upon interrogation succumb to such behaviour for fear of punishment or reprimand. Organizations too subscribe to this kind of manifestation some of which is seen in sales meetings, general internal review meetings and this happens at all levels. The main difference is that inside organizations it happens in a civilized way. As Bertrand Russell puts it “Democracy is the process by which people choose the man who’ll get the blame.” Risk taking, accountability, owning up, answerability, blameworthiness, integrity; promotion of these values to create a great organization are some of the leader’s challenges. To obliterate a blaming culture, leadership teams have to engender a risk taking culture with appropriate checks of accountability in place.


To understand the blaming constitution of people let us delve into Julian Rotter’s conception about ‘locus of control’. This is the degree to which people feel they can control events that affect them. A person with a high internal locus of control believes he is in charge of his life hence he feels he makes things happen in his life. Such people are decision and action oriented and create their own path and fortune in life. If anything goes haywire, they blame themselves. In contrast, a person with a high external locus of control believes that his decisions and life are controlled by external factors outside his control hence his robust belief in destiny, fate, chance etc. If anything goes amiss such people blame someone else or external circumstances for the outcome. It is leadership mandate to recruit people and develop a team whose members posses a strong internal locus of control. Those existing members who have other skills but do not have such a thinking architecture need to be coached so that the organization resonates in accord with accountability at all levels.



Blaming is a social and professional epidemic and if unaddressed is a communicable disease. Accountability improves if a culture of blame abatement is engendered within the organization but if everything has to be corporate driven right from training skills, development needs, leadership insights and so forth it will be a formidable task to achieve acceleration in this area as one is at the mercy of corporate considerations. The attitude of blaming must not be curbed by an externally supervised or ‘organization tamed’ mode of intervention. It has to be invoked intrinsically. BAID (breath alcohol ignition interlock device) is a device that impedes the functioning of a car. If a person’s blood alcohol level (BAC) exceeds a certain level, usually 0.02 BAC the ignition lock impairs the starting of the car as it is programmed to respond only if BAC level is below the prescribed level. The driver has to blow into the ignition interlock device and a ‘on board data recorder’ does the clerical bits. One must heighten one’s own cognitive awareness and the moment the urge to blame emerges, one’s ignition interlock in the mind must fall in place. Such a stance from each individual in the organization will spawn reciprocity.


Organizational pardon for risk taking and mistakes, a little less belligerence on the line ‘don’t screw up’ before sending an employee for a mission, all such kind of conciliatory approach helps. It does not mean disproportionate risks and its calamitous fallout must be dealt with lenity. Here is the often quoted analogy, Tom Watson (IBM Chairman & CEO from 1914 to 1956) was asked whether he was going to fire an employee who made a mistake that cost IBM $600,000. Tom’s response was, “No, I just spent $600,000 training him. Why would I want somebody to hire his experience?” The idea is to encourage an informed risk taking culture with the emphasis on ‘risk taking’ and not inordinate sensitivity analysis to remain informed and avoid the risk. Risk taking with checks, balances and high accountability is becoming a prevailing etiquette amidst innovative organizations. Blaming others is malice, blaming circumstances is self-deception. As we are ardently taught in English why don’t we practice the first person singular subject pronoun ‘It was I’.

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