Take the Blame

I was at a party at a neighbor’s house and it was crowded, with about twice as many people as the space comfortably fit. Like a typical neighborhood event we spent a lot of time in the kitchen. Within the crowd was my neighbor’s dog and of course it was underfoot and got stepped on by accident. Funny thing though was the woman who stepped on the dog’s tail shouted at the dog, “Watch out!” She stepped on the dog and then blamed the dog. Something a lot of us do.

It’s human nature to want to assign blame. I have been known to make the ‘tongue in cheek’ comment to my wife after I have made an error, “I really want this to be your fault.” Since the dawn of time humans have looked for ways of off-loading blame. We start blaming others at an early age, usually to escape parental anger and punishment, but also to preserve our own self-esteem and self-image. Then the behavior sticks, often well into our adulthood. We have even created the expressions “the devil made me do it!” and “it’s just my nature.”

Much of this blame-shifting is an effort to protect ourselves and like the behavior of a 2 year old, wishing it were true. We don’t like being seen by others as a failure, but blaming others is a poor strategy. First, everyone can typically see through it. More importantly, it destroys relationships and prevents learning. If it isn’t our fault, then there’s no reason to do anything differently, leading to making the same mistake in the future, then assessing more blame.

I once questioned a high school player at football practice about an incident during the school day. He immediately blamed the other kid and absolved himself of any responsibility. Post-practice he had some bonus coaching. I pointed out that the “additional conditioning” was not because he was in a hallway fight, but for not taking ownership of his actions.

A lack of accountability can be deadly to an organization. It can become toxic; it erodes collaboration and trust. People waste energy to avoid being the reason for failure. I have seen this in my own career. A struggling sales group blames a poor product, while the product people blame an ineffectual sales team or maybe careless manufacturing. Blaming a department or a product feels safer than blaming a person since it appears less personal.

Over a decade ago, I worked for a company and had an occasional seat at Leadership meetings. I remember at one meeting, without the CEO present, the group stated that they lacked direction from senior leadership – even though pretty much everyone in the meeting was senior leadership. They were passing blame to the CEO.

Taking the blame solidifies relationships, improves credibility, builds trust, reinforces transparency, increases learning, and solves problems. Accepting the blame can be a power move and strengthen our position. Because once we’ve taken responsibility, we can do something about it. It takes courage to own the blame. It immediately silences anyone who might try to blame us. The “who to blame” conversation is over. Now we can focus on solving problems. To take the blame, we need to have confidence in ourselves and our capabilities. We need the personal strength to accept failure.

Owning a problem is the follow up to taking the blame. Nathaniel Branden, the father of the self-esteem movement, believed that taking responsibility was the first step to developing a healthy sense of self. He wrote that the responsibility is ours, and it starts with a mindset that we are accountable for the quality and timeliness of an outcome, even when we’re working with others.

Unfortunately, avoiding being accountable has become part of our culture. It’s everywhere. It’s in individuals, families, celebrities, athletes, the government, and it’s very much alive in businesses. Young leaders, Millennials, are often characterized as a coddled generation. They are history’s most educated generation and often come from smaller families where helicopter parents watched over them carefully. Some have been conditioned at a young age to see personal, professional, and social problems as issues for others to solve.

A great case study on the right thing to do is JetBlue’s week-long operational breakdown in 2007. JetBlue’s operations collapsed after an ice storm hit the East Coast of the U.S., leading to 1,000 cancelled flights in just five days. JetBlue CEO David Neeleman never blamed the weather. He wrote a public letter of apology to JetBlue customers, introduced a customer’s bill of rights, and presented a detailed list — which included monetary compensation — of what the company would do to help all the affected passengers.

Just last week, I was having a ‘Daddy Daughter Dinner Date’ with my youngest daughter and we were discussing her recent fender bender where she was at fault for accelerating at a stop light when the car in front of her hadn’t yet. I told her that I was proud of how she accepted blame, admitted her fault to the police officer (costing her a $100 fine), and was moving forward with a lesson learned. She responded to my compliment by asking “will this end up in one of your blogs?”

Salvation history is full of people blaming someone else for their sin as well as not taking responsibility for their actions. When God confronted Adam, Adam replied, “The woman whom you put here with me—she gave me fruit from the tree, so I ate it.” The LORD God then asked the woman: What is this you have done? The woman answered, “The snake tricked me, so I ate it.” (Genesis 3:12-13) Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent; it was everyone else’s fault.

In later generations, the Israelites grew impatient waiting for Moses to return, so they made their own plans and constructed a golden calf to worship. When confronted by Moses, Aaron defended himself by saying, “Do not let my lord be angry. You know how the people are prone to evil” (Exodus 32:21-24). Aaron shifts the blame from himself to the people. He even attempted to dissociate himself in total by saying that he put the gold into the furnace “and out came the calf.”

The most symbolic gesture of not owning the problem is Mathew 27:24, when Pontius Pilate washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. Look to it yourselves.” Pilate washed his hands to show that he was not responsible for the execution of Jesus. The expression, ‘to wash your hands of the matter’ has become a popular secular saying to avoid responsibility.

Finding fault is backward-looking and is making a scene; taking responsibility is forward-looking and makes a difference. It is easy to point fingers and pass blame. Adam and Eve defined humanity’s relationship with God and revealed our human impulse to shift the blame. We as Christians have been challenged ever since to do the right thing, the hard thing. Accepting failure is a moment in time and not a final sentence on who we are as a person.

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