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I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about blame. What blame really means, and if blame even has a purpose in the world. To my mind, I prefer to avoid blame altogether. Is that a healthy posture to take? Probably not. That said, this posture did signal to me the need for deeper exploration into what blame actually is, how I see it, and what alternatives are available.

To blame, as I see it, is to assign ownership for an outcome to someone or something. This is usually done when the outcome is something we don’t like. In many cases we also blame ourselves, which can lead to a variety of other unresolved feelings towards ourselves, and a poor self image.

Rather than blame, I prefer to take ownership for the outcomes I can control, and to acknowledge the facts where the outcome is out of my control. To look for someone or something to blame, to me, is a clear signal of not wanting to see things as they are, and not wanting to take ownership over one’s own life. Regardless of who or what we feel is to “blame” for something, it is our choice whether or not we wish to let that take hold of us and consume our emotions.

Blame is so cruel. Cruel to others, and cruel also to ourselves. Without imbuing emotion onto blame, blame is also a catalyst. A reminder to us to take ownership of our own life and our own choices. To choose blame is to ignore what is, and to choose rather to have someone else be deemed responsible for correcting the outcome. What if we instead owned our own experience of the outcome? What if we instead ask better questions? How might I correct the outcome I’m seeing? How might I learn from this experience?

These questions put us on a forward-moving course which blame can never match.


6 responses to “Blame”

  1. Adrian Labos Avatar

    For me, blaming means being stuck in the past. You can only blame something/someone when things have already happened, so blaming is as ridiculous as any other situation when you’re trying to change the past, hoping for a better present. It doesn’t work. Blaming is the opposite of solving the problem or moving forward in any way.

    > … if blame even has a purpose in the world.

    It has, but only in the criminal justice system. If someone is murdered, we want to know who’s to blame. Outside that, it’s a weapon being used as a tool. Blamestorming leads to scapegoating, creating a culture of identifying problems, liken an end-goal, rather than solving them.

    Taking ownership of the outcome when things go south is hard because it means putting yourself in a vulnerable position (which I’d love to hear your thoughts on, maybe in another post).

    In my experience, creating a culture where you “don’t take anything personally” helps avoid blaming, being blamed, or having folks being put in a vulnerable position.

    If you don’t feel vulnerable, you’re more likely to:
    – contribute constructive feedback;
    – get more involved and take ownership of your actions;
    – casually turn an emotional response into a rational conversation.

    1. Matt Cohen Avatar

      Thank you, Adrian.

      Taking ownership of the outcome when things go south is hard because it means putting yourself in a vulnerable position (which I’d love to hear your thoughts on, maybe in another post).

      I 100% agree. Taking ownership can be really difficult, at first. I can expand further on vulnerability, though I’ll say here that I believe being vulnerable is actually the key to creating the safe environment we all want. Having the courage to be “the first to be vulnerable” can seem really difficult, yet results in creating a safe space for everyone, without pointing fingers at others.

  2. Beautiful observations Matty. I think we can have accountability without blame, and where people fail to take ownership, we can have conversations about ownership and commitment rather than blame.

    I really like this piece on Blame vs. Accountability: https://michaeltimms.com/culture-of-accountability/

    There’s a table in there that separates out a culture of blame from a culture of accountability and I find it really useful, it’s very congruent with your message and might be a nice addition 🙂

    1. Matt Cohen Avatar

      Thank you, Kirsten. The table in Michael’s post really resonates. I particularly appreciate how clearly the table articulates the difference between focusing on the individuals vs focusing on the issue at hand. I really like this framing.

  3. I remember my 2nd job was at a restaurant. One of my first nights working in the kitchen there was some sort of mistake and the kitchen had to remake a dish. The waitstaff started pointing fingers.

    The chef said, “I don’t care whose fault it is. Just fix it. And if we need to talk about it at the end of the night we can.”

    I worked there 4 or 5 years and we *never* talked about mistakes at the end of the night. It just didn’t matter when it was all over.

    These weren’t recurring mistakes. They’re one-off exceptions. And it makes sense to focus on fixing the problem instead of diagnosing exactly who is responsible for the problem.

    It seems to me that blame isn’t the right frame. Responsibility is a much more positive frame. Blame makes people think they could lose a promotion or their job. Focus instead on being responsible for getting food the table on time and regardless of who messes up a single dish, you can fix that problem. It’s actually a much smaller problem than you think.

    Blame seems like zero-sum thinking. Responsibility is positive-sum thinking.

    1. Matt Cohen Avatar

      Too true. Thank you for sharing this story and lesson, Patrick. Also, it’s great to hear from you, and to know that this post resonated with you. 🙂

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