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Winning the Blame Game

It’s your fault! I don’t know what happened, or why it happened, or when it happened, or, even, if it happened, but I do know that the person who did it, whatever it was, was y-o-u.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because you work at a company that works on blame — a company at which, in the words of Francesca Donner of The Wall Street Journal, “finger-pointing can become so rife it becomes almost impossible to determine what actually went wrong in the first place.”

If this characterization of your organization offends you, don’t blame Donner. Her column, “The Workplace Whodunit: Navigating a Culture of Blame,” is chock full of helpful tips for employees at the kind of companies where everyone is considered guilty until proven innocent.

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In order to provide comfort and guidance for the blamed and the blameless, reporter Donner interviews Ben Dattner, an organizational psychologist and author of “The Blame Game: How Hidden Rules of Credit and Blame Determine our Success or Failure.”

The first Donner to Dattner question concerns the interesting issue of whether it is worse to not receive credit for something you’ve done or to unfairly receive blame for something you didn’t do. “Unfairly receiving blame,” is the psychologist’s answer. “We’re wired to avoid negativity, but negativity tends to loom larger than positivity.”

Of course, I know that your wiring burned out a long time ago, but you do have to admit, it is vexing to get blamed for something you didn’t do. This is especially true for someone like you, who rarely does anything at all. (In a better world, you would actually get a lot of credit for your ability to look busy while doing absolutely nothing. Really, it’s a gift!)

Unfortunately, using your well-documented sloth as proof that you did not do whatever you’ve been accused of doing, is not usually an acceptable defense. Still, that’s not a problem for workplace expert, Dattner, who recommends that you avoid being defensive or attacking others when unfairly blamed for a business boo-boo. “If you say,” he says “‘here’s what I could have done better,’ people will take a more balanced view than if you point out your direct or indirect role in what did or didn’t happen.”

Accepting even a smidgen of blame for something you didn’t do can be vexing, but you can certainly understand why Dattner could be right. For example, you might say, “Here’s what I could have done better. I could have actually been in the office on Monday when the big mistake was made, instead of spending that whole day at the Monday Margarita Madness Marathon at the Kit Kat Klub.”

At this point, you could even make a show of the bar bill you ran up during the day you ducked out, which would be inarguable proof. But since you’ve already charged that bill to your expense account, and also deducted it from your income tax as a charitable contribution, it might be better just to take your lumps.

If it’s acceptable to accept some of the blame for something you didn’t do, Dattner draws the line at accepting all the blame. “You may accept more blame than you think you deserve, but to say it was my fault, when you had nothing to with it, would be strange and self-defeating. Then you’re more like a martyr.”

And you know what happens to martyrs.

After learning how to accept the blame you don’t deserve, you still have the challenge of claiming the credit you do deserve but didn’t get. Chances are the reason you didn’t get your full ration of credit is because your boss took it when you weren’t looking. And let’s face it; being ever vigilant in monitoring your workplace credit rating isn’t easy when you’re face down in a pitcher of margaritas.

Dattner believes it’s “really important to be able to get and claim credit.” On the other hand, he also believes “people will be skeptical if you take too much credit.” I suggest that you start taking credit for taking all the blame. You could also take cash contributions from your co-workers for saving them from the blame that they so richly deserve by actually trying to accomplish anything at work.

Being the king or queen of office foul-ups is the kind of position that would fit you really well. It would also make you indispensable, popular and rich. And who could blame you for that?

Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@funnybusiness.com.

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