Sussing out Blame, Shame and Scapegoating: Repairing Relationships to Recognize and Retain the Best

image of one person with a hand up and many fingers pointing at them to blameBlame…

Have you ever been blamed? Worse yet, have you ever wondered if you’ve been set up to take the fall?

No, this isn’t a plot of a movie. Then again, you know that; I bet you conjured up the image of a person or work context where you wore the blame wholly and completely.

According to Brene Brown, blame is the discharge of anger and disappointment. If we were to be as compassionate with people as possible, I guess we could say; I get it. Being as generous as possible for a moment, we’re all human. Sometimes we think before we speak. We react versus proact.

image of female repair worker When this happens, here’s what you do: repair it, fast.

A “repair attempt”, such as saying sorry for the blame, and even possibly a very small part of what didn’t go well, allowed a shift from blame to resolution. Blame blocks. Resolution restarts.

When a repair attempt is made, even though the air may still be crackling with negative currents, it’s possible to recover and move forward productively. Recognition is a crucial vehicle to do that. The “sorry” can be followed by a compliment, such as “you are very fair and honest, so I appreciate you saying sorry” and “I appreciate how much you care about relationships, so much so that you’d seek me out to work this through.” Your blame bandaid is recognition.

A Story…When A Bandaid Doesn’t Cut it

When I was heavily pregnant with my second child, Simonne, I decided to put on the agenda with my manager the issue of who would be filling my mat leave. I had heard a lot of negative criticisms from our internal clients about the person who filled the first one, and our whole department knew she put in a few hours and ditched our deadlines; our boss was totally unaware of the relationship and productivity issues she was leaving in her wake.

Perhaps naively, I suggested that we have an open competition for my mat leave and not automatically give it to my colleague. My boss smiled, wished me a good weekend, and our meeting was over.

When I arrived at work Monday morning, my colleague had steam coming out of her ears. “So I hear you have a problem with me.” Shocked (and no doubt sleep deprived and hormonal), I stumbled to my desk to find an email from my boss sent the morning before about how “disappointed” she was that two people who normally did team interventions couldn’t work on our relationship directly.

image of a satellite view of a hurricane blame natureIt was a blame and shame storm, and we were all caught up in it.

My boss showed up with a strong lecture (I think she actually said, “I am very disappointed in you both” as a retro throwback to elementary school days.) I was a villain, and for the first time in my life, I counted down the days until I could be screaming in pain giving birth (okay, that’s not true as much as I just wanted out of there.)

(I have to sneak in here – for the record – that my colleague was hired without competition, her performance was so poor she was let go.) I came back with stacks of unfinished projects and worst of all, zero trust in my boss.

I jumped ship at the next juicy opportunity.

Blame Turned Toxic

In this situation, I was a scapegoat: “a person who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, especially for reasons of expediency.”

I was an easy mark. Too trusting, too easy to please, too green, too grateful to have a really cool job.

Once I left the role, I started to notice that the politics of finding an “easy mark” was a painfully alive and well experience.

Here are other examples of easy marks:

  1. The consultant who is hired to fix an out-of-control problem without access to the people, knowledge or timeline to fulfill the project.
  2. The new staff member or student who isn’t given a mentor; yet is criticized for not taking the initiative, understanding the culture, or building relationships.
  3. The head of HR who wears the years and years of people issues left behind from the revolving door of past HR leads (likely fellow scapegoats).
  4. The speaker that is hired to try to help move along the culture without knowing that the influencers in the room are completely resistant to the message.
  5. The person who raises a red flag about a quality, respectful workplace or safety issue and then labelled as a complainer.
  6. The racial or cultural group that is judged as being the cause of their own socioeconomic, health or social challenges.

Here’s the harsh reality: scapegoating works. Having a scapegoat detracts from the real issue, the root problem, and sometimes the person who most needs to address an issue.

Next week, we will talk about coming out of the blame game by calling out gaslighting. In the meantime, if you, your team, or your organization as a whole is struggling to cut through blame habits, remember, recognition is a relationship balm. It may not fix it; however, it sucks the oxygen out of a blame-rich culture. Toxicity and positively can’t survive together, and usually, toxicity wins, so give the good guys a leg up, and stoke the relationship fire with recognition.

Looking for more resources for recognition and creating a great work culture? Check out these links:

“There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.”

– Mother Teresa

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