The Management of Blame by Senior Managers

In the natural course of doing business, things go wrong.

For some of the things that go wrong, people assume responsibility; for other things that go wrong, blame is assigned. The management of blame is part and parcel of organizational life. Blame is part of the game at all levels of the organization.

At the very top of every organizational/business pyramid, there are people with huge egos, and the management of blame is a tool that protects the valuation of the ego and the reputation of the very senior players.

As a matter of fact, managing blame is a critical skill often ignored by the starry eyed consultants who tweet and write about leadership. Many claim that blaming is characteristic of poisonous leadership, or a dysfunctional culture. I disagree.

My experience of 35 years in 4 continents suggest to me that almost all senior leaders have (and use) a vast array of political skills, one of which is the allocation of blame to others when things go wrong. Without blaming skills, you do not reach the top. 

Organization development consultants need to pay more attention to the allocation of blame as a generic built in characteristic of leadership at the top, because senior management teams “manage” the allocation of blame all the time, looking for a place to “park the blame”, and have someone else pay the fine.

I want to point out 12 frequent types of blaming used by people in senior positions.

  1. Pushing  unrealistic commitments
  2. Demonizing a certain figure
  3. Blaming one’s predecessor
  4. Picking on one member of the team without dismissing him/her
  5. Blaming the entire senior team
  6. Blaming the regulators (over-under regulation)
  7. Constant shifting of blame, like a swan casting water off it back
  8. Lack of employee “engagement”
  9. Making ambiguous demands and then, ex post facto, expressing dissatisfaction about the results
  10. Maliciously and intentional under-resourcing
  11. Over simplification  of complex tasks
  12. Appointment of incompetent people to do complex job

I have never encountered any senior manager or senior team where some blaming dynamic is not in place. Furthermore, the blaming dynamic often reflects the pathology of the organization.

The starry eyed idealistic consultant, armed with leadership models fresh from academia, avoids discussing the blame factor, and focuses solely enhancing accountability, ownership and mutual dependencies. By ignoring the realpolitik of senior leadership , the consultant will become irrelevant.

A professional practitioner understands what part of the blaming dynamic is changeable and works to mitigate the dynamic, whilst accepting that the treatment of the blame pathology can only go so far.

One final comment. In Asia, senior management tends to vocally blame subordinates far less than in Europe and North America, due to the obligation of the leader to appear to be compassionate. Blaming does occur, but it is much more subtle.

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10 thoughts on “The Management of Blame by Senior Managers

  1. So refreshing to hear the truth out loud. And providing an OD action pathway: a recognition to the degree change can happen. And realism that at least a certain amount of blame is a learned skill that is not going away. Thank you.

  2. Many of the blaming behaviors you list are dysfunctional and detract from performance……. Some are so embedded in the culture that I am not sure they will come out others can be shifted away from blame (Past focused) toward responsibility (future focused) if the fear that is so inherent in most large organizations can be reduced at the same time. Remember W. Edward Demming said First drive out fear. an OD consultant will inevitably have to deal with the politics of blame…..
    Fear promotes conservatism and resistance………..

    • Of course it is dysfunctional but it is…like death and taxes. It will not change; the challenge is to accept boundary conditions and set realistic goals, not pie in the sky sloganeering.

  3. Thanks for this, Allon. I see this every day.

    I would love to see a follow up post with some mitigation tactics within the boundaries of what’s realistic.

    This also reminds me of something Karl Albrecht wrote in a piece called “17 Pathologies of Bureacracy”. “The syndication of blame” – or, as I like to say, “Get blood on everyone’s hands so that no one person is the fall guy.”

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