Don't try to game credit and blame

Game credit and blame and others may think you're lame

Posted Apr 25, 2011

Too much of a focus on avoiding blame and getting credit can cause us to paradoxically achieve less and to anger our colleagues, coworkers and bosses.

Sometimes people try to protect themselves from being blamed for underperformance by engaging in a defense called self-handicapping, and sometimes, people try to get more credit for their accomplishments or contributions by using an approach known as sandbagging. Unfortunately, both of these strategies can backfire.

Simply put, self-handicapping is when we put constraints in place before doing something, which we can subsequently use as excuses in case we fail in the future. Procrastination is an example of this. Think about a scenario where your boss gives you a task to complete with a deadline to do it. Rather than begin the task immediately, though, you leave it until the last minute - rationalizing that you were too busy with other tasks to do it before then. The real goal, though, is to establish an excuse in case your boss doesn't like the result of your work. A self-handicapper can then blame the poor results on not having enough time to complete the task rather than on insufficient efforts or unremarkable abilities. Good performance may be lost, but self-esteem can be preserved.

This is exactly the dynamic that David McClelland, the Harvard psychologist, discovered when, in the 1950s, he conducted a series of simple experiments where children were to asked to play ring toss - the game where you try to toss a hoop onto a pole. What McClelland found was that kids all played the game differently, some moving in close to toss - others far away. What's interesting is that he also tested each of the children for their "achievement motive," which was an attempt to quantify their desire to succeed. And when he added the two pieces of information together, he found something fascinating: the kids that stood the furthest out when they tossed their ring also scored the lowest on the achievement motive scale. In effect, these kids were so worried about failing, they actually began the exercise by placing themselves far enough away from the post that it became almost impossible for them to succeed - but who could blame them since they were so far away?

What these children did, in essence, was turn self-handicapping into a potential credit-gaining strategy by employing a tactic known as sandbagging. Consider the co-worker who tells everyone how unprepared he is for a major client presentation or how unlikely he is to win a deal because the client just trimmed their budget - all preset excuses seemingly designed to justify an expected failure. Yet, when that colleague returns to the office with a new contract in hand, he can then collect extra credit for overcoming those supposed factors. Interestingly, research conducted in 1991 by Dianne Tice of Princeton University found that people who have low self-esteem use self-handicapping as a defensive strategy, self-protection, while people with higher self-esteem are more likely to employ sandbagging or self-enhancement strategies.

Regardless of self-esteem or self-handicapping strategy, there are costs to engaging in such behavior. Not only does procrastinating or other kinds of self-handicapping actually increase the chances of failure, it can also prove particularly annoying to co-workers. For example, in 1995 Frederick Rhodewalt of the University of Utah conducted an experiment in which the members of a team were asked to measure the contributions of other team members after the team had performed poorly as a whole. What Rhodewalt found was that individuals who had engaged in self-handicapping before the exercise received much harsher ratings than those who had not set themselves up to fail. If someone were suffering from low self-esteem before such an exercise, receiving resentment from their co-workers would surely exacerbate the problem.

As with many other aspects of credit and blame, short-term gains in self-esteem can be risky and costly in terms of longer-term losses of social esteem. Most successful people learn in their careers, sooner or later, that their job performance and the credit they receive won't always be in alignment. While it may be possible to game any system in the short term through "technical" means like self-handicapping and sandbagging, over the long term it's one's "fundamentals" that drive career success.

For more information about how credit and blame influence dynamics in careers and in the workplace, here's the website for my book: The Blame Game.