Workplace Blame Is Contagious and Detrimental

Blaming mistakes on others is socially contagious, according to a new study. Just watching someone pawn their failures off on another can make you do the same to protect your self-image.

The result can be detrimental to everyone involved, particularly in the workplace, researchers say.

Whatever the blunder, from messing up at work to burning dinner, pointing the finger at someone else or some event might seem trivial. But in organizations where blame is the norm, group members are likely to be less creative and perform poorly, research has shown.

The blamer also takes a hit. "When an individual is always pointing to external reasons for your mistakes you won't learn from those mistakes, so it hinders your ability to learn and become more effective," said study team member Nathanael Fast, of the Department of Management and Organization at the University of Southern California.

Scientists have known certain personality traits are part of the puzzle of why we blame, with optimistic people being less likely than pessimists to blame and narcissists more likely to ditch responsibility for mistakes.

And then there's the kick-the-dog effect.

"It's the kick- the-dog effect where if someone high in the hierarchy makes a mistake and blames the person below them for the mistake and that person blames the person below them and so on, and when there's no one else to blame that person goes home and kicks the dog," Fast told LiveScience.

But until now, researchers haven't looked at the spread of blame in social settings to see if the act of finger-pointing is catchy, not just the blame-game involving the same failure.

The results, which are detailed in the January issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, also have implications for company culture and the field of contagion, in which scientists have found good behaviors can spread, including self-discipline, but not negative actions - until now.

The blame game

Fast and Larissa Tiedens of Stanford University had 100 participants (70 women) with an average age of 31 read a news clip about a failure of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, with one group's excerpt including a statement in which the governor blamed special interest groups for the failure and the other participants reading a statement in which he took full ownership of the failure. Later, participants wrote about an unrelated personal failure and had to explain what caused it.

Participants who read about the governor blaming others for a mistake were twice as likely as the other group of participants to blame someone else for their own slip-ups. Another experiment with a similar set-up, in which participants wrote about a failure crafted by the researchers, showed the same results.

Two other experiments were designed to show why blame is socially contagious

In one, more than 100 participants with an average age of 34 read a fabricated news report about a failure by a large philanthropic foundation, with subjects either reading about the organization's director taking responsibility or blaming others for the failure.

Participants also answered questions to tease out the possible causes of blame-spread, including the idea that seeing someone blame puts you in a bad mood and leads to further blaming. The other idea is that when you watch someone blame others, that observation can legitimize the act in your mind as okay to do.

Regardless of whether participants read the blame or responsibility clips, their mood didn't change and they still considered blame as socially inappropriate. But those who read the blame scenario were more likely than the other group to say the foundation director was protecting his self-image and also more likely to think protecting their own self-image was important.

Protecting self-image

In the fourth experiment, the team tested out the self-image cause. In a similar set-up, results showed nearly 80 percent of participants in the group that read about blame pointed the finger at others for their own mistakes, while just under 40 percent of those in the group that read about the main character taking responsibiilty did the same.   These numbers changed when some participants underwent a self-affirmation technique used widely. Essentially, they wrote about a value that was most important to their self-esteem. "Just doing this boosts self-esteem and can allow people to be [less] defensive," Fast said.

Those who read the blame scenario and also got this self-esteem boost were less likely to blame others for their shortcomings with just 35 percent doing so.

How companies can benefit

The new results suggest when we see someone else ditching responsibility for mistakes, we are more likely to do the same in our lives. The motivator: protecting our self-image.

And Fast says the results would likely be even stronger outside of the lab. "Certainly people are being exposed to blame in that very way over the Internet and blogs and in newspapers," Fast said. "I would expect the effect would be stronger if you actually observe it firsthand."

To boost performance, Fast says, companies might want to keep blaming others to a minimum.

"It's important for leaders and organization managers who are trying to shape their cultures in a way to improve performance and creativity," Fast said. "If you're a leader, don't blame other people, at least not publicly. You might want to offer praise in public, but if you have to blame someone, do it in private."

He added these leaders can take responsibility for their own mistakes in public in order to be a model of this behavior. Some companies already do this, he said, by throwing so-called failure parties in which people talk about their mistakes and learn from them.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.