Blame is an evolutionary reaction and has positive and negative consequences. So what place does it have in the workplace?
The COVID-19 pandemic has unearthed the best and worst of society.
A world-shattering experience like a pandemic rips control from us and humans will scramble to find any way to regain that control. There is one way we are hardwired to reclaim stability in uncertain situations and that is through blame.
Blame follows us everywhere. We blame the bus driver if the bus is late. We blame the way we slept if we feel stiff in the morning. Sometimes I blame inanimate objects when I run into them! It’s innate. It stops us feeling stupid for running into a coffee table even though it hasn’t been moved in about five years.
But it has a flip side – scapegoating or blaming someone for something for which they are not responsible.
The table might not suffer any consequences when I unfairly blame it for my clumsiness but people are a different story. Scapegoating can range from benign to severe. Just ask almost anyone from a minority population who has been blamed for a variety of society’s issues.
Blame and scapegoating are prevalent in society, but what’s their impact in the workplace?
Blame is a cohesion tactic
Blame can take two different forms in the workplace, says Professor Robert Hoffmann, chair of RMIT University’s Behaviour Business Lab at the School of Economics, Finance and Marketing.
The first type is informal blame; it could be when you’re chatting to a colleague and you say, “I can’t submit this report because John hasn’t given me his numbers”.
The second is formal blame, for which there is a more official process, such as a workplace investigation into high turnover rates.
“The official process takes a more dispassionate view,” says Hoffmann.
“On one hand, blame could be a strategic thing which helps an organisation achieve its targets better, this is a kind of formal process. But another one is almost a psychological process.”
“And that’s very interesting because people are almost hardwired to blame. It’s kind of an evolutionary makeup if you like.”
Since the Stone Age, we have used blame to keep members of the group in line. Blame goes hand in hand with repercussions. You do something wrong and something bad happens. This is why it’s an integral part of workplaces, which at their core are cooperative groups.
“It has a function to make sure the group cooperates. And that’s a very important part of why we have blame,” says Hoffmann.
“It’s part of reinforcing good or bad behaviour, so people become more accountable. But on the other hand, it can also have negative consequences – a whole load of them.”
Scapegoating is instinctual
Since blame is so intrinsic to human behaviour, it makes sense scapegoating is also. Having someone to blame makes us feel better. This is particularly clear in instances where we feel a lack of control.
“Say a company loses profits and there’s a redundancy wave. Then our sense of control is undermined. Something has happened which we cannot control. And now suddenly we need to get this control back,” says Hoffmann.
“If some random event affects your life and you have no control and no explanation – an act of God if you like – people, psychologically, find that very, very hard to deal with because there’s nothing you can do about it. And there’s nothing you can do to prevent it in the future. So the blaming gives you a sense of control back.”
This explains why, in COVID times, we feel the need to find someone to blame. For example poor Victoria has borne the brunt of the blame for the latest wave of infections.
But scapegoating only works if the person you are blaming can’t prove their innocence, which is why we often blame people who can’t defend themselves. Usually, they’re someone we wouldn’t actually confront with our accusation. Perhaps they’re an indistinct group of people we can blame for our problems – a group at which our colleagues will nod in agreement and say “yep, they’re the problem”. They’re ‘the man’, or more commonly ‘management’.
“You see this kind of strategy playing out in the workplaces everywhere. Management becomes some monolithic thing. It’s the institution,” says Hoffmann.
“Managers are never a party to those conversations that people have around the water cooler. So it’s very easy to blame them – they can’t defend themselves.
“And of course, there’s no such thing as ‘the management’. We know that managers can disagree with each other. They sometimes have conflicting goals; they have many different layers. But people still say, “it’s management, they are the problem.””
Unfortunately, says Hoffmann, it’s part of the territory. People with power are natural targets for blame. Look at how we talk about politicians.
There is no sure-fire way to avoid becoming the sacrificial lamb, but Hoffmann suggests transparency and giving employees space to voice concerns.
He gives the example of an institution that conducts online meetings where employees can submit anonymous comments.
“These comments are read out by the moderator for the management to answer. And I think this is an awesome way to do it. It’s very, very brave and very transparent. I think it gives people much less ammunition if things are done transparently and clearly.”
Make sure the blame game doesn’t become your official sport
Like many emotions and behaviours, blame can be contagious and can be detrimental to workplace culture.
“If everybody around you blames [people] then it’s hard not to catch the bug. You will also end up blaming. This is a really, really negative culture that needs to be avoided at all costs,” says Hoffmann.
Hoffmann encourages workplaces to consider cooperation as the ultimate goal and a vicious cycle of blame is not conducive to that.
“An effective workplace is one where people will give to the group rather than being selfish or looking out for themselves,” says Hoffmann.
“The key task of any boss is to get the group to be cooperative in this way, to act for the group rather than for individuals. Blame can massively undermine that if it’s done in the wrong way.”
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