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Credit and Blame at Work

How Better Assessment Can Improve Individual, Team and Organizational Success

About The Book

Previously published as The Blame Game, this acclaimed guide by a leading workplace expert offers essential advice about how to succeed at work by avoiding the pitfalls of pervasive credit-grabbing and finger-pointing.

Credit and Blame at Work, praised by bestselling management expert Robert Sutton as “a modern management classic; one of the most well-crafted business books I have ever read,” psychologist and workplace consultant Ben Dattner reveals that at the root of the worst problems at work is the skewed allocation of credit and blame. It’s human nature to resort to blaming others, as well as to take more credit for successes than we should. Many managers also foster a “blame or be blamed” culture that can turn a workplace into a smoldering battlefield and upend your career. Individuals are scapegoated, teams fall apart, projects get derailed, and people become disengaged because fear and resentment take hold. But Dattner shows that we can learn to understand the dynamics of this bad behavior so that we can inoculate ourselves against it.

In lively prose, Dattner tells a host of true stories from individuals and teams he’s worked with, identifying the eleven personality types who are especially prone to credit and blame problems and introducing simple methods for dealing with each of them. The rich insights and powerful practical advice Dattner offers allow readers to master the vital skills necessary for rising above the temptations of the blame game, defusing the tensions, and achieving greater success.



All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

After the collision with the geese, there was eerie silence: the plane’s two engines had failed. On January 15, 2009, U.S. Air Flight 1549 had just taken off from LaGuardia Airport in New York City.1 Luckily for the passengers and crew, the pilot in charge that day was not only highly qualified and well trained to think under pressure, he also didn’t let fear of being blamed get in the way of the decision he was about to make. Captain Chesley Burnett Sullenberger III quickly realized that he must either turn the aircraft around and try to land back at LaGuardia, possibly saving the plane, or try to land in the Hudson River, the closest thing to an obstacle-free landing strip that was in sight. The water landing provided the best odds of saving the lives of those on board, but it would surely ruin the aircraft: “Sully” decided to land in the Hudson, and all of the passengers and crew survived, with only minor injuries reported, making the news all around the world. As he said later, “I could have worried that my decision to ditch the plane would be questioned by superiors or investigators. But I chose not to.”

This is the kind of autonomous and heroic decision we would all like to make in our work lives—but unfortunately, many of us find ourselves working in organizations or for bosses who blame people for the wrong things, for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time. Misplaced blame can not only lead to a great deal of frustration, anger, and ultimately disengagement from our jobs, but can also cause us to not speak up or take the right action when we should, for fear of retribution. The allocation of credit as well is often badly out of whack in many offices, with some people getting credit for our contributions or those of others that they don’t in all fairness deserve. Someone makes a suggestion in a meeting which gets ignored, and then someone else makes the exact same suggestion a few minutes later and receives acclaim. Or everyone in an office cuts a certain corner in the way they do their work, but only one person gets blamed for doing so.

We see it everywhere: a CEO blaming his company’s failure or troubles on his predecessor; an employee egregiously taking credit for a co-worker’s idea or accomplishment; a government official referring to a huge unpaid tax bill as an “accountant’s error” or an oil company official pointing the finger at every organization except his own in the wake of a disastrous spill. Just look out your office door or over your cubicle wall and you’re likely to find a co-worker either trying to collect praise from you, your peers, or your boss for the invaluable contributions they’ve made or working hard to deflect blame—especially during tough times when everyone fears a single mistake could cost them their job. It wasn’t the shipping clerk’s fault that the customer didn’t receive the order; blame the delivery company. You can’t blame product development for the company’s poor quarterly results—the fault lies clearly with the sales team. Listen in on any given conversation between two colleagues out on the street or at a restaurant in which someone is complaining about his or her job, and you’ll find the discussion almost inevitably involves outrage about not getting fairly credited or resentment about getting unfairly blamed, and feeling unappreciated or persecuted. And while the tendencies to pull undue credit toward ourselves and push blame toward others are pervasive in our work lives, they are never more intense than at the worst possible time: when the stakes are high, times are tough, and trust, collaboration, and new approaches are necessary. How we handle credit and blame is also contagious; it can quickly have devastating and widespread effects throughout the workplace.

For example, I was once brought in by the CEO of a technology company to consult to a state-of-the-art scientific facility where world-renowned scientists and highly experienced administrators were locked in a cycle of blame. Their director had left to go work for a start-up, and the people he left behind were facing a budget shortfall as they tried to recruit a replacement. Far away from the CEO and corporate headquarters, those who worked at the facility felt neglected by management and were growing increasingly concerned that their division would be closed or sold. Rather than trying to work together and make shared sacrifices to protect their jobs, however, the scientists and administrators blamed each other for the director’s departure and the worsening financial situation. The finger-pointing became evident even to the candidates who came in to interview for the position of director. Most left the building turned off by the toxic atmosphere and the way members of each of the feuding groups talked about the other. The dynamics of credit and blame playing out in this way worsened the budget crisis and lengthened the time it took to recruit a new director, creating a self-fulfilling downward spiral which put the survival of the laboratories in more doubt than ever.

As an organizational psychologist, I consult to organizations, large and small, for profit and not-for-profit, in the United States and abroad. Every time my phone rings, there is an individual, team, or organization on the line seeking assistance with issues relating to credit and blame. Whether it’s a CEO wondering why his management team has become mired in finger-pointing and isn’t getting along, or a financial analyst at a hedge fund worried she won’t get a fair bonus, there has not been a single instance in which I have advised individuals, groups, or an organization where credit and blame was not a crucial issue, if not the single most important issue underlying their problems. I’ve learned through years of consulting with major corporations as well as by serving as National Public Radio’s Morning Edition workplace consultant, that “the blame game”—the elaborate set of self-serving rules and subjective judgment calls which impact how we keep score of blame or credit for ourselves and others—is a key factor in whether workplace relationships are friendly and collaborative or harsh and unforgiving. The dynamics of credit and blame—and specifically whether we succumb to the blame game ourselves or learn to avoid its tempting allure—also have a great deal to do with how successful we will ultimately be. Within teams, credit and blame determine whether scapegoats will be identified and persecuted, or whether collective responsibility will be taken when things go wrong. Between teams, credit and blame dynamics can help explain why collaboration and trust are present, or why negative spirals of mutual recrimination are occurring. How credit and blame are assigned can even determine whether entire companies adopt a mindful view of their challenges and take necessary actions in order to move forward, or get stuck in dysfunctional finger-pointing and score-settling.

Many researchers have studied “management derailment,” which occurs when managers’ careers derail and they either fail in a job, or do not reach their full potential in an organization.2 One key aspect that all such “derailed” executives have in common is that their halted progression was not their own choice—rather, something about how they acted led to their involuntary exit from, or demotion within, their organization. What the studies have found, for example, at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) is that a key factor in why managers fail is that they are poor at managing relationships: they fail to give proper credit to those they rely on, and yet find ways to blame others for their shortcomings.3 As we’ll explore further in chapter 6, how a leader attributes credit and blame can be a major determinant of whether that leader succeeds or fails.

Along similar lines, Howard Tennen and Glenn Affleck at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry analyzed the results from twenty-two studies conducted on the impact of blaming others.4 Seventy-seven percent of those studies showed that when individuals blamed others, they were actually worse off for doing so—both emotionally and physically. In the remaining studies, there was no benefit for people when they blamed others, regardless of whether the person they blamed was a spouse, a physician, or a stranger. In other words, across all of the studies they looked at, blaming is ineffective at best, and more likely to be harmful. This study provides further evidence that despite the short-term temptations of blaming others, doing so doesn’t help the blamer, and is even likely to be costly over the longer term.

A study conducted by Harvard Medical School psychiatrist George Vaillant showed that people who “projected,” or blamed others for their misfortunes, were much less able to adjust to the changing events in their lives. As Vaillant writes, “No one is harder to reason with than the person who projects blame,”5 and he labeled this tendency an immature defense because denial and extreme defensiveness should be more common to children and adolescents than to grownups. In another study, conducted by psychiatrist Leslie Phillips at Worcester State Hospital, it was found that the more people fell into the pattern of blaming others for their problems, the worse off they became in dealing with their life in general.6 In other words, those who blame other people to an extreme extent pay a serious price for doing so.

I first learned about the importance of credit and blame when I worked at Republic National Bank of New York for three years in between college and graduate school, first as a management trainee and then as assistant to the CEO. As I rotated through different departments in the bank, I was fascinated by who got credited when things went well and who got blamed when things went wrong. One day, I noticed a piece of paper that a co-worker had tacked to his cubicle wall that outlined “The six phases of a project: 1. Enthusiasm 2. Disillusionment 3. Panic 4. Search for the guilty 5. Punishment of the innocent. 6. Rewards for the uninvolved.” Despite having studied many formal academic theories of teams and team development since I first saw that list, I have yet to come across a more accurate description of how most dramas play out in our working lives. Unfortunately, in too many organizations, unfair and harmful credit and blame processes determine who gets rewarded or punished in a manner that is totally uncorrelated with actual talent or performance. As a result, creativity and productive risk taking can be crushed, and people may not feel confident making the tough decisions that need to be made. If a co-pilot fears being blamed by the pilot for insubordination, he may not speak up even as the fuel gauge reads empty or the altimeter indicates that a mountain is approaching. If an individual is too afraid of blame to experiment with new things in her career, it’s unlikely she will ever blaze a new path or make a breakthrough contribution. If a team is more concerned with justifying performance than with improving it, team members will waste precious time and energy in searching for something or someone to blame instead of fixing problems or making progress.

I once consulted for a retailer that was opening new stores in the Southeast. Previously, the retailer had sold its goods in shopping malls, but now for the first time it was expanding by buying or building its own free-standing locations. When the expansion fell behind schedule, my job was to find out what had gone wrong with the team of managers assigned to choose and open the new locations. A deadline loomed, as an investors’ meeting was approaching and the CEO wanted to be able to proudly announce the signing of leases in the new locations. As I interviewed the group members and they recounted the story, it became readily apparent what had transpired: the team had not delineated responsibilities or determined decision-making authority. It was unclear who would research new locations, or how the final decision as to which city, neighborhood, or location stores should be opened up in would be made. As a result, the team wasted weeks of time duplicating each other’s research and arguing over which deals should be made, the whole time not knowing whether a simple majority, a unanimous vote, or even any kind of group agreement or consensus was necessary.

This inaction had finally spurred one team member, a young woman named Beth, to act unilaterally. She had the most experience in analyzing potential store locations, the deepest real estate knowledge, and had done the most research into specific cities and neighborhoods. She had grown frustrated with her colleagues because they would criticize her suggestions without offering any alternatives. Mindful of the deadline that the team was facing, and pessimistic about ever reaching a consensus, Beth began making offers on store locations and hiring architects to begin working drawings. At one meeting, as the team argued about where a store should go in one city’s downtown area, Beth mentioned that she had already made an offer on a property in that city’s suburbs.

After the shock of this announcement wore off, the other team members grew furious in response. They didn’t perceive that Beth was just trying to do her job. Rather, fearing that she would make the rest of the team look bad, they interpreted her action as an attempt to get personal credit. In fact, Beth had no intention of claiming credit for the store openings; she was simply trying to move the ball forward. None of the other seven people had paused and asked the team to reflect on its goals, accountabilities, or processes. Instead, they joined together in making Beth a scapegoat, blaming her for the team’s failure to meet their timeline. “Beth’s mishandling of the location research has put us way behind schedule,” they complained to upper management, adding, “We question whether she did enough analysis on the locations she selected.”

When Beth learned about what her colleagues had done, she was completely taken aback. In her mind, she was the only one who had actually done anything to move the research and the dealmaking forward. She had thought it better to begin working on something rather than wait around, trying to “herd the cats,” as she put it, and do nothing. Beth believed it was better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. What she never anticipated was that by acting independently, instead of receiving credit for taking the initiative she became a convenient scapegoat for her colleagues to channel blame onto, for the team’s failures.

In this particular organization, which was highly political, the other seven members of the team concluded that they had more to gain by blaming Beth for the delay than by working together to meet their deadline. Senior management called her in and demanded to know what was going on. While she could have told the whole story and argued her case, Beth had passed the point of no return. Within a few weeks, she quit her job and left the company. There was an initial sense of relief among her former teammates that she was gone, but the team soon had to confront its dysfunction because it remained unable to accomplish its task. A few months later, well after the critical deadline had been missed, I was called in by the CEO to assist the team with clarifying roles, responsibilities, and decision-making processes. Ironically, the company decided to open up stores in all of the locations Beth had selected.

Some organizations get it right, but in my experience it’s a rare organization that hasn’t had serious struggles with credit and blame. The challenge for most of us, unfortunately, is that we find ourselves slogging away in corporate cultures built on negative assumptions and vicious cycles of interaction, cultures based on fear and finger-pointing instead of trust and problem solving. Our office lives come to feel like a high-stakes game of “blame or be blamed.”

Those who love their jobs will likely tell you that they feel appreciated for their talents and contributions, while those who dread coming to work will probably complain that they are unfairly blamed or do not receive their fair share of credit. Try testing this theory the next time a friend of yours says that she just loves her job. Ask her why she enjoys it so much. I’ve found that the answer will have more to do with how your friend relates to the culture where she works than with compensation—“My boss really appreciates my contributions,” or, “I feel like I’m recognized and rewarded for what I do,” or even, “I feel like my boss and my teammates ‘have my back.’” Great bosses and colleagues are good at sharing due credit and do not assign undue blame, while awful ones use all kinds of mental gymnastics to distort, deny, or misremember facts and events in order to take credit and dispense blame.

The stark truth is that credit and blame matter. It’s in our nature to care a great deal, often more than we should, about whether we are being fairly or unfairly credited or blamed. Each of us comes to work every day with a legacy of evolutionary hardwiring, early life experiences, acculturation, and socialization that significantly influence how we give and receive credit and blame. Our sense of pride, our ego, is easily offended when our bosses or peers fail to recognize our contributions. On the other hand, that same ego protects itself from feeling shame by building defenses against being criticized for a misstep. For both ego-enhancing and self-protective reasons, we can come to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy adopting self-serving and defensive positions. Because of human evolution and our own early life experiences, most of us care too much about how much credit we receive, and often fight to get credit even if it ends up costing us much more than it’s worth. In other words, we tend to care more about building our self-esteem and enhancing our social standing instead of taking a longer-term view and acting in our pragmatic self-interest.

We can all benefit by learning to be more strategic about credit and blame. Consider, for example, how taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture might have helped Robert Kearns, an engineering professor and owner of the patent covering the invention of intermittent windshield wiper blades in cars. Kearns’s story, first told in an article in The New Yorker and then in the movie Flash of Genius, starring Greg Kinnear, is a cautionary tale.7 Kearns battled the giant car companies like Ford and Chrysler for years for violating his patent. What makes his story relevant is that he was so driven by the need to receive credit for his invention that he destroyed his marriage and his academic career, even suffering a mental breakdown.

It was on a rainy day in November 1962 that Kearns, a lifelong inventor who had built prototypes of a hair gel–dispensing comb and a missile guidance system, among other things, had his moment of inspiration: why couldn’t his car’s wipers blink the way his eye could? Kearns then worked in his basement laboratory until finally coming up with a functional prototype, which he installed and tested on his Ford Galaxie. Kearns grew up and lived in Detroit, home of the Big Three auto giants—Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler—and he had seen other inventors get rich by supplying the automakers with their parts. Kearns intended to follow their lead. So he set off in his Galaxie on a journey to show off his invention. After receiving some interest from Ford and what he thought was a promise from Mercury, Kearns eagerly began testing and tweaking his new wiper-blade system, financing the whole project himself and asking his wife and four children to sacrifice along with him until their big payday arrived. But it wasn’t really money that Kearns was after: he wanted the recognition that he, Bob Kearns, had invented something useful and he wanted to be publicly credited for that achievement.

The problem was that Kearns’s payday didn’t come for another thirty years—and even then not in the form he had longed for. After seeing his invention, the various automakers created their own intermittent wiping system, claiming they had come up with their design independently while basically telling Kearns to go away. Not surprisingly, Kearns was outraged, believing the automakers had stolen his idea. But, despite the hardship, he was not ready to give up. And so, for the next thirty years, using his children as his assistants, he mounted an incessant legal campaign against the automakers for infringing on his patented system. He even turned down huge settlement offers from the automakers. He wanted his day in court, so he could tell his story to a jury and the world.

The problem was that Kearns sacrificed just about everything he had on this quest—his marriage, his life savings, everything—to prove how wrong the car companies had been to steal credit for what he firmly believed was his idea. Kearns eventually won jury awards of more than $20 million from Ford and Chrysler—with lawsuits still pending against just about every other carmaker in the world—and yet he was still greatly disappointed. If he had been able to think more strategically, Kearns might have realized that his pursuit of credit as an inventor would paradoxically and tragically bring blame and suffering upon him in other realms of work and life.

We allow ourselves to be drawn into irrational credit seeking and the vicious cycle of the blame game in large part because we have a strong need to see ourselves in a positive light, even if that means ignoring or distorting important information that we should be aware of about our own talents and performance. Almost everyone holds him- or herself, or his or her group, to a different standard than others; it’s human nature to do so. This is not a book about good and evil—though there are certainly cases where people blatantly lie and knowingly blame others for things that they themselves are responsible for or steal credit for things they know they had nothing to do with. Of more interest to us, because they are much more common, are situations in which people truly believe that they deserve more credit than they’re due, that they are above blame, and that others should take the fall. These distorted beliefs cause them to get caught up in the blame game. How we claim or assign credit or blame to ourselves and others is a major determinant of whether we learn and grow in our careers or stagnate and derail. It also helps determine whether we are trusted and respected or resented and undermined by the people who work with or for us. The good news is that coming to a better understanding of the dynamics of credit and blame can bring a competitive advantage both to you in your career and to the team and organization you work in. I’ve found that when individuals, teams, and organizations learn to hand out credit strategically and blame accurately, they create a virtuous cycle where they not only perform better and learn more, but are also happier and get more satisfaction out of their work.

Understanding the dynamics of credit and blame for ourselves and others, however, isn’t easy. It involves looking in the mirror and realizing that each of us sees the world through our own self-serving lenses and from our own familial and cultural vantage point. The feedback we may need to move forward in our careers isn’t always positive, and the journey to the summit of credit often involves traveling through the valley of blame. I’ll argue that there can be enormous benefits in reducing our daily credit intake and seeking out small, homeopathic doses of blame. In order to help you avoid the trap of falling into the blame game yourself, and to successfully engage with the credit-grabbers and finger-pointers in your work life, in the pages that follow we’ll explore more deeply the evolutionary, psychological, and cultural reasons that the blame game is so alluring and pervasive. I’ll describe how blame can quickly escalate, but will also share strategies for how to reduce and defuse it.

We’ll first consider fascinating insights from the field known as evolutionary psychology. For example, we’re not the only primates to be overly concerned with social life and organizational politics to the point where we ignore “reality.” Vervet monkeys are so focused on who is dominating or appeasing whom in their groups that they often miss clues that there are predators in the vicinity.8 Other mammals also pay close attention to reciprocal social interactions and relationships—for example, even bats credit and blame other bats in the way they share their food with one another.9 We’ll also explore how early life experiences come into play, considering how children learn to assign credit and blame, and see how, to some extent, whether we like it or not, or realize it or not, every day is “take your family of origin to work” day. We will also look at how gender and culture impact the way credit and blame are given and received by men and women, and by people from different cultures.

Then we’ll take a close look at the egregious things bosses and colleagues do, and consider the underlying reasons why they do these things, revealing the ways in which individual personality, workplace relationships, team dynamics, and organizational cultures can predispose people to credit and blame fairly or unfairly. I will argue that successful individuals learn to navigate between the one extreme of pathologically blaming others for everything and the other extreme of blaming only themselves for anything. Developing empathy for why others are so prone to blame can help you blame them less, thereby stopping—or at least slowing down—the cycle of blame. As individuals, we all reach forks in the road where we can either veer toward accuracy or head down the tempting but slippery slope of self-serving rationalization. Examples of this include saying things to yourself like, “Maybe I should give Harry some credit here, but after all, I’m the one who really made this happen,” or, “Yeah, I screwed up, but it was really my boss’s fault; he didn’t warn me about the things I needed to know.” Whether we admit it or not, we all have powerful urges to rationalize this way. As Kevin Kline asked in The Big Chill: “Have you ever gone a day without a rationalization?” We can all help each other blame less and learn more.

Organizations also reach forks in the road where the thinking and behaviors that were rewarded in the past are no longer optimal in a changed environment. It’s tempting to blame any individual or group that advocates change, especially since change requires taking a step back in order to take two steps forward. Prioritizing change and learning over the long term usually means that performance will suffer in the short term. Organizations with static patterns of credit and blame get stuck, rigidly defending the status quo because social dynamics and vested interests prevent progress. The more such organizations are able to constantly readjust their internal dynamics of credit and blame to align with a changing external marketplace or environment, the more likely they are to survive and thrive. Closed organizations that suffer from dysfunctional politics, that credit people who defend the status quo, and blame anyone who challenges it, are going to be under increasing threat in our rapidly evolving “open,” “open source,” and “networked” world. If an organization doesn’t fairly credit talented people for their ideas, skills, and contributions, another organization or network will. Thanks to the Internet and other technologies, organizations are transforming from centralized hierarchies to decentralized networks. Open organizations constituted by networks in which people trust and credit one another fairly for contributions, and blame each other proportionately when warranted, will ultimately triumph over closed, overly political organizations. In today’s world, networks determine which Hollywood movies will be successful, who will host Saturday Night Live, and whose travel video will become a YouTube sensation and cross over to the Discovery Channel. Organizations that are trapped in the blame game will have a hard time adapting to this new world.

In order to stop playing the blame game, individuals, teams, and organizations have to learn how to overcome their tendencies to think and behave in habitual ways and learn to take a new, adaptive, and counterintuitive approach. Some hospitals, for example, have learned that rather than hiding behind lawyers and denying their mistakes, they are better off standing up and admitting their responsibility for errors—spending their resources to correct problems instead of trying to conceal, deny, or obscure them. Not only can this help doctors and nurses learn and prevent similar errors from happening again, which saves lives, but the hospitals have also found, perhaps surprisingly, that the families of patients harmed or killed by an error are less likely to sue when the hospital steps up and takes the blame. We’ll explore when and how taking blame and owning up to your mistakes can create more opportunity for improvement than denial ever could, despite the risks of doing so. We’ll also consider how CEOs and other leaders can create either positive or negative cultures in which the dynamics of credit and blame dramatically enhance organizational learning or in which they tragically constrain it.

In my experience, people who enjoy their jobs or who lead high-performing teams and organizations have learned to pay close attention to the social psychology of credit and blame, and to build a firm foundation for collaboration and problem solving. As one example, a real estate developer hired me to conduct “partnering” sessions for the architects, engineers, and managers who were about to begin construction on an innovative “green” building. The developer, who had many years of experience in all kinds of building projects, told me that he found that bringing people together at the beginning of a project was a great way to avoid the blame game, since it is all but inevitable that the temptation to point fingers would emerge over time. An insightful and enlightened leader of his family-run organization, he knew that it was important to address the social psychology between groups in advance, just like any other kind of project planning. He wanted to create an environment of trust in which people would fix rather than blame. By establishing the foundation for collaboration, he could greatly increase the odds of achieving a successful outcome. Then, as problems came up, the groups acknowledged their own oversights, and constructively helped each other solve problems. Well-managed credit and blame helped the teams create a building that broke records for its low environmental impact. Just as he helped build a “sustainable” building, the developer helped build sustainable trust and collaboration between all of the teams involved in the design, construction, operations, and maintenance of the building.

It’s very rare that anyone ever became a “great boss” without demonstrating some mastery of the ways in which credit and blame can so powerfully influence motivation, workplace relationships, and teamwork. When credit and praise are assigned fairly, it triggers an impulse in every member of the organization to elevate their performance. And if, while working for a great boss or at a great organization, someone makes a mistake, he or she is likely to stand up, disclose, and take responsibility for their error because they know that if they acted in good faith they will be forgiven and encouraged to try again. Because they are less afraid of being punished for errors of “commision” or speaking up, people working in great organizations are much less likely to make errors of “omission” by remaining passive or silent. When credit and blame are managed properly, people are willing and able to experiment, learn, and grow. When credit and blame are mismanaged and unfair, people shut down, become demotivated, and focus more on covering their rears than on moving forward.

The challenge is to rethink our evolutionary hardwiring, early life experiences, acculturation, and socialization, so that we can do a better job ourselves of avoiding the blame game and can contribute to building the kind of office environment where everyone thrives. In my role as an executive coach and organizational development consultant, I have never been able to help an executive, team, or corporate client if I haven’t effectively challenged their beliefs about credit and blame, illustrated how dysfunctional patterns have created or reinforced the status quo, and helped them change their narratives of, and assumptions about, credit and blame. My job is to help my clients identify the underlying causes of and stop vicious cycles—and then to help them make the changes necessary to start and reinforce virtuous cycles. Although my specific mandate may be to help the organization select higher-potential employees, to coach an individual, to mediate a conflict, to work with a single team or multiple teams, or to help the organization change its culture, I’m not able to do any of these things without encouraging people to think about how they are making sense of credit and blame, and to explore alternative narratives and strategies.

It’s my hope that after reading this book, the next time you find yourself navigating a high-stakes workplace situation, instead of taking the nearest exit you will hear your own internal voice say, “recalculating.” This book is all about how recalculating and reevaluating credit and blame can serve as a positive force for individual learning, workplace relationships, and team and organizational dynamics.

In chapter 1, we’ll look at how nature, through evolution, has shaped how people assign credit or blame to themselves, considering how we all tend to give ourselves undue credit when things go well and to shirk responsibility when things go badly, from individuals overestimating their contributions to group projects to CEOs making rationalizations in annual reports. In chapter 2, we’ll focus on nurture—how our family experiences, gender, and cultural influences shape our ways of thinking about, and behaving in regard to, credit and blame. In chapter 3, we’ll examine how personality and personality types impact how individuals assign credit or blame to themselves and others, considering how tempting it is for certain kinds of people in particular to hold others to a different standard and to cast blame away from themselves. Then, in chapter 4, we’ll explore how situations have a powerful but often underestimated influence on how we perceive and react to credit and blame. chapter 5 is all about corporate cultures and how credit and blame is a key component of these cultures, for better or worse. In chapter 6, we turn to leadership, and show how the way in which leaders assign credit and blame, and the atmosphere that they create, influences their success or failure as well as the success or failure of the organizations they lead. And chapter 7 builds on the preceding chapters to suggest practical ways in which individuals and organizational leaders can increase the chances that credit and blame will be a positive force for change and growth rather than a negative force for stagnation and failure.

Let’s get started.

© 2011 Ben Dattner

About The Author

Seth Dinnerman

Ben Datner is the founder of Dattner Consulting, a workplace consulting firm whose client list includes Pfizer, Novartis, MasterCard, and Goodyear. He is the workplace consultant for NPR’s Morning Edition, writes the Minds at Work blog for Psychology Today, and is an adjunct professor at New York University. He lives in New York City. 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (March 15, 2011)
  • Length: 256 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439169582

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