The Contagious Toxicity of Blame

18 June, 2015

Chris Smith

Chris Smith


You can see the color drain out of your co-worker’s face, his eyes wide in fear as he turns to you. He started sweating just ten minutes into the team meeting. He takes a deep breath and hacks out a few panicked coughs. He’s about to speak, and you know this is the beginning of the end. You want to flee, hide under your desk until it passes, but it’s too late. Dale is infected.

Blame in a business is toxic. Like a zombie.

The contagion had been infecting and annihilating teams for months, even years on end. All it took was one weak link in the team, and it looks like, this time, it’s Dale. How long has he been infected? How many will he infect? Will anyone be brave enough to put him down and save the rest of the team?

“It wasn’t my fault! Alice never sent me that email!”

Hold on, wasn’t this was the beginning of an apocalypse novel? Wasn’t Dale about to succumb to the zombie virus? Nope. This isn’t a zombie contagion outbreak. It’s just a regular meeting at work and this virus is a less unique, yet just as dangerous toxin: blame.

How toxic is blame? How can the contagious toxicity of blame be compared to a zombie outbreak? Let’s review the facts.

“The blame is coming for us, Daryl. Are you ready?”
“I was born ready, Rick.”

The Toxicity of Blame

Blame is contagious. In 2009, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology released a study about the blame contagion. Psychologists Nathanael Fast and Larissa Tiedens conducted four experiments to determine if and why blame seems to spread from person to person. What they found was that the ‘‘blame contagion encourages a person to engage in blaming behaviors shortly after being exposed to another individual making a blame attribution for a failure.” When we see someone defending themselves and blaming others, we reflexively defend ourselves as well. Here are some of the other toxic effects of blame:

  • When we blame others for our mistakes, we learn less and perform worse.
  • Repeated blaming leads to decreased health and well-being. Blaming others and holding blame inside yourself creates a negative mental state. “The data that negative mental states cause heart problems is just stupendous. The data is just as established as smoking, and the size of the effect is the same,” says Dr. Charles Raison. Further, he estimates that 90% of illness originates from negative mental states caused by stress, namely – you guessed it – blame. Blame kicks on our body’s flight or fight response, which would be useful if you were actually going to fight zombies. However, blaming others doesn’t eliminate stress, it just keeps us ready to fight. “When our bodies are constantly primed to fight someone, the increase in blood pressure and in chemicals eventually take a toll on the heart and other parts of the body.
  • Blaming hurts relationships. Clinical psychologist Dr. Tom Jordan has written about how blame affects relationship dynamics. Those who are blamed experience guilt and bitterness towards themselves and others, and over time, their self-esteem drops. Blaming makes it harder to communicate with each other, trust each other, and work together. Blaming also reduces kindness and intimacy.
  • Blaming others forces us to give up our autonomy and gives away our power. By blaming someone else, we are actually giving up our self-determination and making ourselves a victim of their alleged mistakes.
  • Blaming is harmful in organizational settings. Multiple researchers and psychologists have found that organizations where blame is continuously assigned are unsafe spaces for their members. Companies, groups, and teams that blame are less psychologically rewarding, less conducive to learning, less productive, and creatively limited.

“I don’t feel safe doing this, Shaun.”
“Shut up, Pete. This is all your fault.”

Why Do We Blame?

The act of blaming comes from the psychological urge, projection, says Dr. George Simon, PhD. The psychological act of projection is an automatic mental practice used to defend ourselves against distasteful impulses. We deny the existence of these impulses in ourselves and readily assign them to others. This projection is a part of our human defense mechanisms, which is a “coping technique that reduces anxiety arising from unacceptable or potentially harmful impulses.” When we sense blame coming our way, and feel too guilty to face that blame, we project the blame onto others. Ultimately, blaming is an inherently fundamental psychological act with one goal: defending yourself and protecting your self-image.

“But Rick! It wasn’t my fault, I just -”
“Really, Dale?! Your obsession with self-image will kill us all!”

How to Move Beyond Blaming

Save yourself from the blame contagion. Consider the following:

Work On Your Self-Esteem. “Affirming core values and personal competencies is the best way to eliminate defensiveness,” says Dr. Fast. Having a high self-esteem helps remove the urge to blame others and stop the blame contagion in its tracks.

Build Your Resilience. Part of building your self-esteem is building your resilience to critique. Work on being able to hear critique and blame, think critically about it, and not take it personally.

Talk About It. Find someone objective you can talk to about the situation before the blame game starts. Talking to a supportive friend can help ease your defenses and relax your responses to others.

Let Go of Attachment and Control. You can’t control the situation or any of the people who are a part of it. Let go of your attachment to the problem, and let go of needing to control it. When we let go of attachment and the desire to control, we can learn and grow.

Recognize the distinction between blame and responsibility. Being responsible means we are answerable or accountable. Blame means we are responsible and at fault. Focusing on blame instead of responsibility shifts the focus away from what went wrong and how to keep it from happening, to finding someone to punish.

Consider Your Options. In the moment, right before the blame game begins and you’re infected with the toxicity of blame, what are your options? How can you make the best of this situation?

Consider Your Role. How did you contribute to the situation?

Consider the Role of Others. Are you being too hard on someone else? Who are you blaming, and why are you blaming them in particular?

Learn and Grow from Your Mistakes. Think back on mistakes you’ve made in order to learn and grow. If you were to re-live the situation and take full responsibility for yourself, what would you do differently?

How to End the Blame Game In Your Team

Dale’s toxic blame doesn’t have to destroy the whole team. Be the hero of your office, and save your team from the blame contagion.

  • Set a good example. Confidently take responsibility for mistakes and failures. This shows others that you’re not afraid to be responsible, and encourages them to be accountable for their own errors. Further, it shows others that it’s not the end of the world to be blamed and it’s okay to be accountable.
  • Focus on learning. Help create a culture of learning. When leaders encourage learning in the workplace, it helps ensure that people will take responsibility for their mistakes and choose to talk about and learn from them.
  • Ask what can be done differently. Remember, this can be a learning opportunity. Take this time to reflect as a team on what can be done next time to avoid the problem.
  • Be forgiving and understanding. Understand that mistakes happen. When errors occur, express forgiveness and understanding.
  • Reward responsibility. When a team member steps up and takes responsibility for an error, avoid focusing on the failure itself. Express your gratitude for their accountability and point out that their action allows the team to target the problem, learn from it, and grow.
  • Root out the “kick-the-dog” phenomenon. People are more likely to blame those below them in any hierarchical structure when they have been blamed by one of the higher-ups. When you face blame or critique by an authority figure, rely on your resilience to think critically and not take it personally. Don’t blame the person below you.

Be the hero; use these tools to understand and fight the blame contagion.

It doesn’t matter who is right.

At our office we have an axiom that saves a lot of headaches. “It doesn’t matter who is right. What matters is what works.” Getting the job done is more important than figuring out what went wrong. Thanks to our constant use of Filevine, we always have a pretty good idea of where problems entered the workflow since there’s always a record. That means we can move beyond blame and get the problem solved.

What systems do you use to avoid rampant personality wars taking over your firm? Leave your solutions in the comments below.