By Dan Fisher*, Ph.D.
Concern over who gets the credit and who gets the blame is at the core of so much of our work as organizational psychologists, human resource professionals, and internal or external consultants, not to mention our own careers. Chances are, you have experienced at least one of the following: your boss took credit for one of your ideas, a co-worker blamed you for something that may or may not have been your fault, you were tempted to point a finger at someone else to deflect blame, or you sought credit that perhaps you didn’t deserve. It’s also very likely that in your work as a consulting psychologist, executive coach, or OD practitioner you work with clients every day who are wrestling with, and are challenged by, all of the above.
These issues of credit and blame are the topic of long-time SIOP member Ben Dattner’s book, “The Blame Game, How the Hidden Rules of Credit and Blame Determine Our Success or Failure”. Dattner provides an eloquent account of the impact of credit and blame in our lives, particularly as they emerge in organizational contexts.
Through a wealth of psychological research, theory, and the author’s own consulting experiences as an organizational psychologist, Dattner explains the origins of credit and blame (in terms of an evolutionary perspective, family influences, and human personality), and how individuals can apply practical strategies for defusing or preventing the blame game to organizational situations with the goal of improving overall work performance. As he writes, “The stark truth is that credit and blame matter” and “We can all benefit by learning to be more strategic about credit and blame.”
In order to make challenges and opportunities regarding credit and blame come alive for the reader, Dattner provides many engaging anecdotes from his own experiences as a consultant. In one memorable example, also depicted in the PBS series “This Emotional Life,” he recounts the story of two professional acrobat partners with whom he consulted who “found themselves pitted against each other” when one of them had a terrible fall during a pivotal performance when they were trying a new routine. These two partners fell victim to the blame game, pointing fingers at each other for various faults, which led to a dysfunctional business partnership. Fortunately, the author worked with the aerialists to resolve their conflict, and “helped them reach a ‘flipping point’ in their relationship where they began to understand that they each brought different and valuable skills to their partnership.”
While there are several stories about how the blame game plays out between individuals, such as with the aforementioned aerialists, Dattner also offers a rigorous exploration of the dynamics of credit and blame as they exist at a macro level – within and between teams, and within entire organizational cultures. An example of this sort of exploration can be found in the contrast between the cultures of American Airlines and Southwest Airlines with regard to their attitude toward blame. American Airlines employees tended to point fingers when things went wrong (such as delays) whereas Southwest employees sought to understand the problem and to not resort to blame. Much of Southwest’s success can be attributed to their openness, and willingness to take responsibility for errors and mistakes. The considerable trust this approach to credit and claim engenders, is a critical component of any high performing team and company. A culture of blame can be dysfunctional because it prevents a company from learning and growing. Dattner asserts, “Whether an organization has a culture of blame or not can be a key determinant of performance at all levels.”
Steering clear of a cookie cutter approach to addressing issues related to credit and blame, Dattner acknowledges that there is no “one size fits all” strategy to solving issues of credit and blame. He does, however, provide a number of useful tips for the reader to take back and apply at the office. For example, he encourages individuals to understand their own personality, the personalities of those around them, and how personality styles may influence tendencies towards credit and blame. Those familiar with the Hogan Developmental Survey, will recognize the relationship between Hogan’s career derailers and Dattner’s description of the different types of dysfunctional attitudes held by others in regards to credit and blame. Dattner has, in fact, developed an assessment instrument based on the HDS called “The Credit and Blame Type Assessment” (CBTA). Another practical tool that Dattner developed in conjunction with the book is a 360 that assesses credit and blame success and derailment factors. The book was clearly written to be usable in executive coaching engagements, leadership development programs, and in conjunction with team building or other organizational development projects.
Beyond the useful practical tools, perhaps the greatest impact of this book is that it encourages the reader to take a step back and reflect on his or her own behavior regarding credit and blame. If you’re like me, then reading The Blame Game, will raise your awareness of your own tortured relationship with credit and blame and where you could have really added more value to your team and organization in the past. As Dattner explains, “coming to a better understanding of the dynamics of credit and blame can bring a competitive advantage both to you in your career and to the team and organization you work in.”
Whether you are a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a consulting psychologist, or just beginning your first job out of college, The Blame Game will provide you with a sophisticated perspective on the dynamics of credit and blame. Give Dattner some credit, his research and well-written historical anecdotes will leave you more knowledgeable, while his consulting tales will leave you better equipped to stop playing the blame game yourself, and equip you with the necessary tools to help your clients stop playing too. He has also done a good job of articulating a lot of research and theories that may be familiar to the members of SIOP, but not to the general population. Hopefully this book will be a “crossover hit” and get the word out to a broader audience about the insights and practical knowledge that I/O Psychologists have and provide.
*Dan Fisher is a managing partner at Fisher-Rock Consulting and Past President of METRO – The Metropolitan New York Associate of Applied Psychology. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For additional information about The Blame Game: www.creditandblame.com.