The Harm in Pointing Fingers When Things Go Wrong

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In my post on Monday, "What I've Learned About Infosys: A Tale of Treachery," I wrote about a conversation I'd had with psychology professor Ben Dattner on the topic of credit and blame, and how those elements lie at the core of so many career problems and so much workplace dysfunction. I mentioned the topic in the context of a discussion of the Infosys whistleblower case, but there was a lot more to what Dattner had to say that warrants consideration.


Dattner, author of the book, "The Blame Game: How the Hidden Rules of Credit and Blame Determine Our Success or Failure," argues that at the root of the worst problems in the workplace is the skewed allocation of credit and blame. He identified some of the problems he was referring to:

People quitting because they feel like they don't get the credit they deserve; people becoming de-motivated; people getting into conflict with each other; people no longer trusting each other; and really the contagious effect of everybody in the workplace blaming each other or covering themselves rather than doing the work that needs to get done. If you think about almost any career dysfunction, credit and blame are almost always at the heart of it. It's hard to think of workplace dysfunction where it's not about credit and blame.

That's not to say you shouldn't strive to ensure you get the credit you deserve. Dattner offered some specific advice for IT professionals:

IT professionals tend to be introverted, and they tend to be more about substance, and less about the style or the sizzle. So sometimes IT people have to do a little marketing for themselves: "Here's how much money we saved, and here's how much better it is." IT people sometimes overestimate how much people understand or appreciate what they bring to the table. IT people don't get the credit they deserve, because the information often isn't available to their business stakeholders or supervisors. In order to really appreciate how well you're doing, people really need to know a lot about IT. So part of what IT needs to do, just from a political perspective, is educate people about what they do and the value they bring, and how well they're performing. Because if I'm a CEO, and you're my IT director, I might not even know how to evaluate your performance. One thing IT professionals can do: I talk in the book about ways technology helps to provide more information-so anonymous surveys, and the kind of instant, anonymous feedback that IT has enabled, is really helpful in giving leaders and organizations feedback they might not get because people would be intimidated if they had to deliver it face-to-face.

I asked Dattner whether he has found that the emergence of telecommuting has had any impact on the allocation of credit and blame, and whether people who telecommute have any reason to be concerned that a relative lack of face time might cause them to be blamed more and credited less. He said he hadn't really done any research on the topic, but noted that a key point in his book is the importance of relationships:

We're more likely to credit people who we feel we have close and trusting relationships with. And to the extent that when you work virtually, people can't see you, and they don't know you as well or feel as comfortable with you, that might undermine how much credit they give you. It's a little bit of a paradox: The credit and blame you receive from others determines the quality of the relationship that you have with them. But it's also an effect of that relationship. So try to have some face time, if possible; at a minimum, use Skype, Google Chat, or other technologies to have some richer media communication. One thing that I always advise my clients when they're starting out on a virtual team is to try to have everybody meet in person at least once before the project officially begins.

On the question of whether it's worse for your career to take more credit than you deserve or less credit than you deserve, Dattner said it depends on the industry and the organizational culture:

One element of my book is that people often make the mistake of taking a short-term perspective, which costs them over the long term. So taking too much credit in the short term might make you feel good now, and might even make you look good to others now. But over the long term it can undermine your effectiveness. Similarly, while sharing credit with people might make you feel vulnerable and feel less secure in the short term, it can help you build bonds and achieve more over the long term.

I asked Dattner if he would advise people to err on the side of taking more blame than they feel they truly deserve in any given situation. His response:

I would advise them to be open to the possibility, to be less black-and-white, to think, "Maybe there's something I could have done differently. Even though it wasn't my mistake, maybe there's a way I could have helped you not make that mistake."