How to Win at the Employee Blame Game

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Young nurse woman wearing mask and stethoscope pointing with finger to the camera and to you, hand sign, positive and confident gesture from the frontIn every workshop I conduct on addressing workplace bullying and incivility, leaders ALWAYS ask for help dealing with employees who never take responsibility for their actions. These are the employees who blame everyone else and rarely, if ever, take responsibility. For example, an employee makes a mistake but when you confront him, he averts responsibility by blaming his coworker, another department, and sometimes, the patients or their families! If you’re not careful, you can get sucked into the vortex of the blame game leaving you frustrated and defeated. However, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Understanding human behavior

I read once that you can basically categorize humans into two categories: 1) people who have neurotic tendencies and, 2) people who exhibit psychotic tendencies. Although I’m not confident this is true and I don’t want to minimize true psychotic disorders, understanding the spectrum of these tendencies can help you gain clarity on why people behave in certain ways. Once you understand them, it’s easier for you to address behaviors in a way that everyone wins!

Neurotic Tendencies

People who exhibit neurotic behaviors tend to blame themselves for everything that goes wrong in their lives. If they didn’t get the job, it was because they didn’t have the right skill set, screwed up the interview, or someone was more qualified.  They may ruminate and beat themselves up for not being good enough.

Their internal dialogue tends to be negative towards themselves (I suck at everything) and even if successful, they internally worry that one day, others will find out they’re a fraud. It’s called the imposter syndrome (I suffer from it too) because we think that one day, others will realize that we don’t know what we’re talking about or that we’re not as talented or skilled as everything thinks.

Author and civil rights activist, the late Maya Angelou admitted that she often felt like a fraud. She once said, “I’ve written 11 books, but each time I think, uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”

Arianna Huffington, cofounder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post shared, “The greatest obstacle for me has been the voice in my head that I call my obnoxious roommate. I wish someone would invent a tape recorder that we could attach to our brains to record everything we tell ourselves. We would realize how important it is to stop this negative self-talk. It means pushing back against our obnoxious roommate with a dose of wisdom.”

When something goes wrong, people with neurotic tendencies find fault inward.

Neurotic tendencies may show up as an employee who doesn’t push him or herself, apologizes for things that aren’t in their control, are fearful, or who you find that you need to spend time constantly boosting their self-esteem.

When I was a new nurse, I was petrified that I would make a mistake. I worked on a cardiac step-down unit. We cared for patients with abnormal heart rhythms such as VT, new onset afib, and various heart blocks. I hung IV drips with a powerful drug to calm the heart every day. One of my greatest fears was to end my shift only to find that my patient coded and died after my shift. Why? Because I immediately blamed myself and worried that perhaps I missed something, hit the wrong button on the IV pump, or made a medication error that I didn’t catch. Thank goodness nothing that dramatic ever happened but I worried about it and constantly asked my peers to “check my pumps”.

However, my colleague Crystal had the complete opposite response. I can remember one day during shift report when Crystal learned that the patient she had cared for the day before died after her shift. Her exact words were, “Well, he was alive on my shift. Something must have happened after I left.”

People like Crystal exhibit psychotic tendencies.

Psychotic Tendencies

People, who have psychotic tendencies, blame everyone else for anything and everything that goes wrong. They never take responsibility for the part they play.  These are the employees who EXHAUST you and the ones whom you carry home with you in your head.

No matter what the situation, Dave was innocent and everyone else was to blame. Once, Dave was working a 16-hour shift. His patient was ordered 2 units of packed RBCs at 9am but the night nurse who started her shift at 11pm, had to hang them. When I questioned Dave (he was my employee) about why he didn’t hang the blood on a patient with a hemoglobin of 6.1 g/dL when reports show that the blood was ready at 10am, he replied, “Well, the blood bank never called me to say it was ready.” Really???

When something goes wrong, they find fault outward.

Without completely going down the rabbit hole on people who blame others, it’s helpful if you understand why people get into the habit of blaming others.

Psychological Projection

An element of psychological projection exists with people who look to blame others for their mistakes or issues. It’s a defense mechanism. It’s a way of protecting themselves. I know as the oldest of 5 kids, anytime something went wrong (Tina fell and hit her head on the corner of the coffee table), it seemed as though my mom would blame me or my brother, who is only 10 months younger than me. I can remember getting nervous about getting into trouble, so I looked for someone else to blame. “It was Erik’s fault Mom!” My mother would then say, “You just wait until your father gets home. You’re all in big trouble!”

Those words produced terror in our family. What would daddy do to us? Which was way worse in our minds than anything he did. Please note that I was not ever abused or treated in a way that could be considered harmful psychologically, however, “getting into trouble” plays a role any time I make a mistake. It’s a part of who I am; however, I’ve learned to quiet that inner voice in my mind (well, most of the time).

When people blame others instead of taking responsibility, it could be that they’re trying to protect themselves or are afraid of getting into trouble.

Game plan for dealing with a blamer

As a leader, how do you deal with employees who always blame others and never take responsibility? I’ve found three tactics helpful.

  1. Wear the curiosity hat

I love, love putting my curiosity hat on when it comes to holding someone accountable. By approaching the situation with curiosity, you decrease their defensiveness, just a bit and open the door for a conversation.

I’m curious why you’re blaming respiratory for _____. What would make you blame them?

I’m curious why you think it’s someone else’s responsibility and not yours.

  1. Shift the focus

When an employee tries to blame a coworker or another department, shift the focus back onto that employee. Say this, “That may be true but what role did you play in this situation? What was within your control?”

What you’re doing is directing and redirecting the conversation back to the employee and away from others. This helps you coach them towards awareness, which is a key element of emotional intelligence.  Say this, “What one thing could you have done differently in this situation?

  1. Reassure

I once worked with a manager who said to her nurses, especially when they were new, “Look, we can teach you how to be a great neuro nurse. If you make a mistake, don’t worry. We got your back. We’ll find out what happened and do everything we can to help you. If you don’t know something, we want you to admit it. Nobody knows everything here. By asking questions, you’re demonstrating a commitment to life long learning, which is a characteristic of a successful nurse and an expectation here.”

Reassure your employees that it’s okay to make mistakes. The expectation is that they admit it and step up as a professional to improve.

Dealing with an employee who plays the blame game doesn’t have to leave you feeling like you’ve lost. Now that you have a game plan, it’s time to stop letting them win!

Please share in the comments below any experiences you may have had with employee playing the blame game and how you managed it.

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2 thoughts on “How to Win at the Employee Blame Game”

  1. Thoughtful, helpful, and succinct article. I enjoyed it. Some good discussion and suggestions for dealing with external placement of control locus. Thank you.

    1. Thanks so much Alicia! My apologies for the delay in responding. I’m so grateful you took the time to read my blog article and comment!!!

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