Credit and Blame at Work

Exploring the psychological forces at play while you work.

A Characteristic of Top Coaches

Executive coaches can add more value with questions than answers

Whether you are climbing your way up the corporate ladder, or endeavoring to maintain your position now that you've reached the top, there is no shortage of advice from business gurus, management experts, and motivational speakers about what you need to think and do in order to survive and thrive in the contemporary workplace. They recommend that you build your emotional intelligence, discover your strengths, listen to feedback and sharpen your focus. Their keynote addresses, bestselling books and training programs provide models of successful business leaders who have embodied their recommended style or values, and cautionary tales of failed business leaders who did not do so.
Unfortunately, most current theories of business leadership themselves have the very same kind of blind spot that they emphatically counsel against- an unwillingness to embrace ambiguity or confront unpleasant truths. While it can be very helpful to analyze and build upon one's strengths, without a willingness to look in the mirror and honestly assess oneself, it is unlikely that one will adapt and evolve as a leader. Popular assessment tools like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) provide some basic talking points about one's personality, along with "I'm OK, you're OK" reassurance, but don't provide the potentially challenging feedback that can lay the foundation for real change.
As an executive coach, I work with executives at every level, and in every function, of corporations ranging from small start ups to multinational corporations. One of my fundamental principles in the work that I do is that in order to be effective, I have to at some point during the coaching engagement (and sometimes more than once) risk getting fired by my client. The reason is that learning and growth is never as easy as people would like to believe, and there is no potential change that doesn't bring up resistance. One of the values that an external executive coach can provide is to call things as he or she sees them, without the same degree and kind of concerns that an internal coach or advisor might have.
In my experience, issues of credit and blame are often at the core of what business leaders struggle with, regardless of their level in the organizational hierarchy. We are all tempted to take credit for good outcomes, and to deny blame for bad outcomes. Most of us also have a bias to credit people similar to ourselves (along many dimensions, not just demographic ones) and to blame people who are different from us. A leader's unconscious assumptions about credit and blame, always powerfully operating, will impact not only how he or she makes sense of the world, but also how motivating or demotivating the leader will be to his or her subordinates.
When I work with clients, I endeavor to challenge their assumptions about credit and blame, among other things. I believe that I add value when I help clients move from automatic, simple, and self-serving explanations of credit and blame to a more mindful, complex, and balanced view. No matter how subtly one does so, challenging an executive's narrative about his or her role in the success or failure of a project or task is an intrinsically risky activity. While many of my colleagues have done very well in providing reassuring answers, my approach is to ask a lot of tough questions.

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Ben Dattner, Ph.D., is a workplace consultant, an industrial and organizational psychologist, and an adjunct professor at New York University.

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