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Book review: A workplace tug-of-war that nobody wins

We're terrible at assigning credit and accepting blame. Can we do better?

We’ve invented many clever ways to talk about blame without actually using the dirty word. There are scapegoats and sacrificial lambs, whipping boys and fall guys. There’s getting thrown under the bus and pointing the finger. But just as people can’t seem to unload responsibility for failure fast enough, they’re also eager for praise. Unchecked, the tension between those two tendencies can hobble careers, relationships and whole organizations.

Understanding the psychology behind that tension, and navigating around the people who perpetuate it, is the subject of The Blame Game: How the Hidden Rules of Credit and Blame Determine Our Success and Failure (Free Press). Organizational psychologist Ben Dattner and co-author Darren Dahl feel that many companies have corporate cultures rooted in a “blame or be blamed” mentality. The economic crisis magnified this venomous cycle: “Whether it’s financial bailouts or oil spills, it seems every time one turns on the television there is some executive testifying before Congress … blaming other organizations rather than taking any accountability.”

Humans aren’t actually very good at attributing blame and responsibility fairly or evenly. Neither are we consistent in the way we distribute kudos to ourselves and others. Dattner describes an optical illusion where two lines appear to be different lengths because of their placements in a perspective drawing. The viewer may know the lines are the same length, but it’s hard to force the brain to see them that way. As a rule, humans almost always believe they deserve more credit for a job well done than they would be willing to dish out to a co-worker who completed the same task. It’s a cognitive bias psychologists call “illusory superiority.”

But while we tend to be inconsistent when doling out credit or blame, we do expect people to be fair to us. And we have our ancestors to thank for it. To survive in the wild, the human brain evolved to “simplify matters in order to facilitate a speedy response in the face of too much information coming at us.” These mental shortcuts may let us make quick decisions, but this oversimplification often skews our perception and gets in the way of calm, rational thinking. Studies that involve divvying up money, for example, have shown that subjects would irrationally rather walk away empty-handed than feel they were cheated out of their fair share.

Humans are also hard-wired to chase credit, giving us a buffer against inevitable future failures. That same protective instinct is what makes us want to distance ourselves from a failed project.

Though our responses are innate, it doesn’t mean we’re doomed to a constant tug-of-war over credit and blame. In a fraught relationship in the workplace, Dattner and Dahl recommend we “step back and dial down the emotion that [we’re] feeling — by systematically reflecting on the wide range of possible influences on [a boss or co-worker’s] behaviour.”

Gender stereotypes can be one such influence. Female managers, for instance, still face discrimination at work, and women are also more likely to internalize undervaluation. “When a woman is passed over for a raise or promotion, she may engage in behavioural self-blame,” write the authors. Men tend more often to overvalue their accomplishments.

We also tend to make generalizations about a person’s individual contribution to a project based on how we feel about a group the person belongs to: a team, a company, or — even if we don’t realize it — their ethnicity, religion or disability. When we apply stereotypes or biases to large groups, it’s called “ultimate attribution error,” and to combat it, the authors suggest taking an “implicit association test” (there’s one available free through implicit.harvard.edu) to measure your unconscious prejudices. “It is well known that people don’t always ‘speak their minds,'” Dattner writes, “and it is suspected that people don’t always ‘know their minds.'”

But understanding the reasons behind the human need to avoid fault and feel validated is only the first step in reversing the credit-and-blame cycle.

One tip the authors offer for bosses who want to be more “blame-savvy” is to think about the criteria you use to evaluate others and deliver praise or criticism. Apply this one set of standards to all people, including yourself — “giving yourself a metaphorical traffic ticket.” Be vocal, and let people know that you hold the same standards for yourself, and that credit and blame aren’t assigned “based on ‘power’ instead of ‘truth.'”

Another trick is to develop a wide-reaching business network of people, within your company and beyond. Dattner and Dahl say a boss who unfairly withholds credit and “blames you may change her tune when she realizes that others both inside and outside the organization recognize your talents.”

It’s also worth noting that, while it’s never a good idea to blame innocent people, it can be useful to add a little extra credit when you feel it is deserved, to balance your biases. “First of all, it’s likely that the other person deserves more credit than we are inclined to give them,” say the authors, and secondly, this positivity may make the person more likely to reciprocate.

Stress can make people revert back to old and unhealthy patterns, too, so Dattner recommends introducing these changes slowly, and making yourself pause to collect your thoughts in tense moments on the job.

Perhaps most important, we need to keep an eye on the bigger picture — the future of our careers, our company’s main objectives — and stop sweating the small stuff, keeping both cheer-worthy successes and heartbreaking failures in perspective.

In time, and with practice, we can stop looking around the office for sacrificial lambs and scapegoats, and follow Harry Truman’s lead. He pre-empted any questions of credit or blame with a sign on his Oval Office desk: it read, “The buck stops here.”

Executive summaries

Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant (Doubleday)
Paul Clemens

Founded in 1912, ThyssenKrupp Budd — originally Budd Co. of Troy, Mich. — has been for a century one of America’s key manufacturers of car components. But in 2006, the company decided to close its two-million-square-foot stamping plant on Detroit’s East Side, among the oldest active auto plants in the fading Motor City. Guggenheim fellow and Detroit native Clemens was there for much of the year-long decommissioning process, as workers stripped the plant’s salvageable parts and carefully disassembled its press lines for shipping to booming factories in Mexico and Brazil.

The world has adopted a sort of twitching voyeurism toward Detroit’s decline, appalled and curious, romanticizing the destruction of a once great American city. This kind of “ruin porn” grates on Clemens; the book seems written in part as a rebuke to those who flock to the city “armed with telephoto lenses, French theory and poetic notions.” In chronicling the plant’s disassembly, sketching from a distance the work of the blue-collar grunts, the conflicts between unionized worker and contractor, and the reasons why an auto-parts plant located between two Chrysler factories failed, he puts a face on disruptive change in a country that now employs more choreographers than metal casters. — Jordan Timm

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (Pantheon)
James Gleick

The invention of the transistor in 1948 changed everything, of course; but that same year, a quiet Bell Labs engineer named Claude Shannon wrote a short monograph that became “a fulcrum around which the world began to turn,” says Gleick. Called A Mathematical Theory of Communication, Shannon’s paper first defined the word “bit” as “a unit for measuring information.”

That novel idea — of information as something identifiable, measurable and transmittable — has shifted not just the fundaments of the economy, but our theories about everything from language to biology. The pre-eminent American science journalist, Gleick herein explores the history and effects of knowledge communication between humans, drawing a link from African talking drums and the earliest alphabets through the telegraph — once “a nervous system for the Earth” — to Wikipedia and Twitter, and the current state of information overload from which so many claim to suffer. It’s not strictly a business book, but it does contextualize the Information Age and the often subtle ways in which Shannon’s ideas — simple but devilishly hard to pin down — have affected everything around us. Brain candy of the highest quality. — JT

Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions (Portfolio Penguin)
Guy Kawasaki

One of the 800-pound gorillas of the social-media world, Kawasaki was among the original Apple evangelists. One of the company’s early hires, he was responsible for selling the Macintosh computer as a software platform to developers, a task at which he succeeded largely through “fervour and zeal.” In his 10th book, Kawasaki adopts the term “enchantment” to describe “the process of delighting people with a product, service, organization or idea,” and turning that delight to advantage in your relationship with clients in a way that’s voluntary and mutually beneficial. By mastering the art of enchantment, you’ll develop and launch brilliant products, and earn the respect and admiration of your employees and bosses.

That’s quite a task for fewer than 200 pages. Like many books of this sort, Enchantment offers its share of vagueness and platitudes. (“Make a great demo,” Kawasaki advises at one point. OK, I’ll get right on that.) But it’s astute in places, as in a section explaining how making your boss look good is the key to enchanting them, or in a passage on how to bolster your likability with a few well-deployed swear words. Used unexpectedly and in moderation, cussing “can increase your acceptance by all but very prudish people,” releasing tension and building solidarity. — JT