Work Matters

Straight Talk and Solid Evidence About Organizational Life

Blame is Contagious, Except When People Have High Self-Worth

How Bad Bosses Play the Blame Game

A pair of themes that I have returned to many times on my blog Work Matters are:

1. One of the most revealing tests of a leader or organization is "what happens when people fail" (especially, creating psychologically safety rather than a climate of fear is important, as is accountability for mistakes).

2. Emotions, especially negative ones, are dangerously contagious.  Indeed, one of the main themes of The No Asshole Rule is that one of the most reliable ways to turn into a jerk is to have a boss who is a jerk or to enter a swarm of of them -- it is hard to resist catching the poisoning.  

A recent study by Nathaniel Fast at USC (who got his PhD at Stanford) and Stanford Business School Professor Larissa Tiedens in the January 2010 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology provides compelling new evidence of the nuances of how an especially vile form of nastiness spreads -- blaming others when things go wrong.  The article is called “Blame Contagion: The Automatic Transmission of Self-Serving Attributions” and is apparently the first series of experiments that have ever examined if blaming others spreads like a contagious disease. Plus it contains a fascinating twist -- blame was highly contagious EXCEPT when the researchers first took steps to help research subjects bolster their self worth.  There is a great summary of on the USC website here.  But some key highlights are (quoted from the summary):

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1. Anyone can become a blamer, Fast said, but there are some common traits. Typically, they are more ego defensive, have a higher likelihood of being narcissistic and tend to feel chronically insecure.

2. The experiments showed that individuals who watched someone blame another for mistakes went on to do the same with others.In one experiment, half of the participants were asked to read a newspaper article about a failure by Gov. Schwarzenegger, who blamed special interest groups for the controversial special election that failed in 2005, costing the state $250 million. A second group read an article in which the governor took full responsibility for the failure. Those who read about the governor blaming special interest groups were more likely to blame others for their own unrelated shortcomings, compared with those who read about Schwarzenegger shouldering the responsibility. (the emphasis in mine). 

3. Another experiment found that self-affirmation inoculated participants from blame. The tendency for blame to spread was completely eliminated in a group of participants who had the opportunity to affirm their self-worth. “By giving participants the chance to bolster their self-worth, we removed their need to self-protect though subsequent blaming,” Fast said.

This last finding is especially important and has all sorts of interesting implications for leadership, life, and  especially politics.  Apparently, pointing fingers at others is not only contagious, it is amplified by insecurity and apparently eliminated when people feel valued and esteemed.   Note this crucial to the effectiveness of a group or organization because, when something goes wrong, if the response is a "circular firing squad" as I have heard it called, then not only do people devote their energy to attacking each other, they have less energy -- and little incentive -- for working on repairing the problem.  

Also, this research perhaps helps explain the sad state of much of American politics these days. Blamestorming is a contagious disease that has spread and I am confident that among those in the political ranks (or who aspire to higher office) the incidence of insecurity and especially narcissism is very high.  As an example of someone who plays in both spheres, Carly Fiornia former HP CEO and now candidate for Senate in California was infamous for her narcissism and her penchant for blaming others, as documented in the Fortune article that finally drove he board to fire her.  Turning to her new life as a politician, if  you have not seen her Demon Sheep Attack Ad, you have missed something weird and wonderful). Although Carly does not suffer from insecurity, the narcissism findings ring true.

To return to leadership and management, the lesson from this new research, as well as many other studies of psychological safety. is that great bosses treat mistakes as an opportunity to learn, develop careers, and make the system stronger. And, yes, for accountability too.  As the USC summary of the above research indicates, there are organizations out there that are remarkably good at learning from mistakes, rather than as an opportunity for finger-pointing and humiliation of culprits:

Or managers could follow the lead of companies such as Intuit, which implemented a “When Learning Hurts” session where they celebrated and learned from mistakes, rather than pointing fingers and assigning blame. The blame contagion research provides empirical evidence that such a practice can avoid negative effects in the culture of the organization.

This is damn good advice for any boss.

Bob Sutton is an organizational psychologist, Stanford professor, and author of five books including bestseller The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss (September, 2010).

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