You don’t need a doctorate to know that blame is bad. Of course, if you have a doctorate, then you know blame is really bad.
Numerous research studies have linked blaming behavior to decreased health, reputation, group innovation and productivity, and even lower corporate stock performance.
But is blame contagious?
That’s what Nathanael Fast, Associate Professor of Management and Organization at USC, and Larissa Tiedens, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, wanted to find out. The two designed a study to determine if merely observing blame leads individuals to mimic that negative behavior to protect their self-image.
Their results probably won’t surprise you. After four experiments, Fast and Tiedens concluded that “observers of blame may automatically infer, adopt, and pursue (via subsequent blaming) a self-image protection goal.” In essence, merely observing a peer pass the buck places one’s self-image at risk. That perceived risk can lead to additional blaming as a means of self-preservation, even if the blame was initially assigned to someone else.
However, Fast and Tiedens also knew that “Self-affirmation tasks enhance self-esteem and reduce defensiveness by reminding people what is truly important to them and, as a result, lessen the tendency to defensively protect one’s self-image.” While simply viewing or overhearing blame could have a contagious effect, their fourth experiment showed that “self-affirmation moderates the blame contagion effect, apparently because it removes the need to protect the self via blaming.”
If the accusation is the disease, it appears that affirmation may be the cure.
Tony Cooper, co-founder of Market Force, a training program used to advance human dynamics in innovative organizations, studies corporate breakdowns and agrees that refocusing on shared values is one of the best ways to manage failure.
“A team has to have a shared intention to begin the journey to ensure everyone is on the same page so that it can efficiently recover from breakdowns,” he shares. “Otherwise, the team will just focus their work on the wrong things. The team will then become its own breakdown and unfortunately, it will become an unresolvable breakdown.”
When clear values and goals unify a team, the need to protect individual self-image dissipates and the spiral of blame is avoided.
Darcy Shiber-Knowles, the Senior Quality, Sustainability, and Innovation Manager at Dr. Bronner’s promotes this healthy response by starting Green Team meetings with a practice of gratitude. One of her former professors made a lasting impact by inspiring her with this ritual.
“There was a Dean that I worked with when I was in school who started every meeting with gratitude,” she recalls. “He would thank the students at the beginning of the meeting, and I found that it set the right tone, as it brought people into the room in a different way. It wasn’t contrived and it wasn’t forced. It was leadership offering genuine gratitude for the work being done, and people were then more present.”
Practicing gratitude and affirmation doesn’t mean ignoring failure; instead, Shiber-Knowles sees it as the best way to set the stage for learning from setbacks.
“If we say thank you for the things that others have done so far, then if there’s bad news, such as the fact that we didn’t reach our waste goals and there was cardboard that went to landfill,” she says, “then it doesn’t come across as demoralizing. It comes across as an opportunity for conversation about who we are, who we want to be, and how do we get better. [Our] gratitude practices help us move past all of that so we continue to learn.”
Promoting a culture of appreciation and focusing on shared goals is similar to taking Vitamin C and honey during the cold season. It may be just the boost your office needs to avoid the blame contagion.