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Seven Ways Leaders Can Unearth (And Neutralize) The Fear That Lurks Behind The Blame Game


by Mike Staver, author of “Leadership Isn’t For Cowards: How to Drive Performance by Challenging People and Confronting Problems

When you arrive at the office each morning, you find yourself in a blame-free zone. Your team attacks projects proactively and with confidence. When a problem arises, everyone involved “owns it” and takes corrective action. Bob in marketing says he’s personally responsible for an event flier going to the printer late and stays late to overnight them to the client. Meanwhile, Sally in accounting emails, “The client’s invoice was wrong because of our miscalculation. We’ve called and apologized.” And so it goes with every employee, in every department…

… and then you wake up.

Yep. Instead of facing the workday with excitement, most leaders want to crawl back under the covers from sheer dread of what actually awaits them at the office: excuse making, blame shifting, and responsibility dodge ball. The underlying culprit is something you might not suspect: fear.

An organization that has perfected the blame game is one where hidden fear — fear of failure, of confrontation, of difficult tasks — runs rampant. And guess where these kinds of energy-draining, counterproductive cultures originate? That’s right: with the leaders.

Blame-based leadership seeks to find a bad guy so that there is someone to absorb the problem, like a lightning rod absorbs a bolt of otherwise dangerous electricity. If a bad guy can be found, then everyone else can take a collective sigh of relief. If it’s operations’ fault, for example, management can’t have done anything wrong. And when it’s someone else’s problem, no one takes action to solve it.

Blaming is only one symptom of hidden fear. The destructive thing about fear is that it keeps us from taking the quick, decisive actions courageous leadership requires — and the global economy demands.

Removing fear and establishing a take-responsibility culture begins with leaders. Once you have let followers know that you are on their side and want them to win — while establishing that you won’t settle for anything less than the highest degree of execution and performance — they’ll begin to adopt your fearless attitude.

Acknowledging that you are ultimately responsible for the results of your life, thoughts, and actions creates a level of freedom not experienced by those who choose to blame others. It empowers you to act. Courageous leaders are driven by, even obsessed with, the imperative to eliminate excuse making and blame from themselves and their organizations.

Read on for advice on how you can take responsibility and help your followers to do the same:

Look at the man (or woman) in the mirror.

You can’t expect your followers to change their attitudes while you stay mired in your old blame-based thinking. That’s why Step One in creating an excuse-free company culture is taking a good, hard look at your own tendency to blame others and at the underlying fear driving it. A few common culprits include: fear of failure, fear of being underprepared, fear of confrontation, fear of risk, fear of being wrong, and fear of being unpopular.

Once you have identified the fears infecting your own leadership, figure out which behaviors you can change in order to set a better example. If you tend to overprepare — meaning that progress happens at a glacial pace — you might courageously take the next step forward, even if you’re not sure that the proposal is perfect. Your employees will see that action, even if it isn’t 100 percent mistake-free, drives results.

Overall, strive to proactively confront any policy, person, or mindset that is holding you and your organization back. Be an obstacle remover and push yourself to take bold, decisive action. And if (actually, when) you do screw up? Set a good example and “own it.” Overall, you’ll find the rewards of being a fearless leader will far outweigh the consequences.

Get real about how your organization handles mistakes.

What happens when someone on your team screws up or takes a risk that doesn’t pay off? If the answer is that a leader swoops in to mete out swift and certain punishment to the offending employee, two things will happen: 1) the blame game will flourish (after all, no one wants to be the fall guy when something goes wrong) and 2) most people will shy away from taking any risks at all in the future.

Is a bland, play-it-safe, riskless culture what your organization really needs? If you want your organization to grow instead of stagnate, it’s imperative that you handle mistakes in a constructive way. If you’re too harsh, of course none of your followers will want to upset you by taking risks. The truth is, taking risks should not only be allowed but encouraged.

Instead of putting negative pressure on your people, try to help them work through any kinks while keeping the focus on performance and growth. And always be sure to celebrate your employees’ accomplishments without compromising their momentum. That means acknowledging progress with full and complete focus on the success of what is right here, right now.

Preach the “choose or lose” gospel.

It’s when employees feel powerless that they toe the company line, mindlessly follow orders, or simply choose to do nothing. As a leader, you need to make employees understand that they always have a choice. (And yes, doing nothing is a choice.) It’s important to make sure that everyone in your organization considers the full range of options, even those that might seem impractical or illogical at first glance. Here’s why: Once you realize you have choices, it’s a lot harder to blame others for your actions, or lack thereof.

If you’re alive, you have choices, bottom line! Some are big. Some are small. But in the course of your work day, they all matter. Challenge your employees to think about the big picture consequences of their choices. Ask them, ‘How will this decision affect your overall goals?’ or, ‘What’s your intended outcome?’ And most importantly, ‘What will you do if things don’t go as expected?’

Of course, you can’t ask these questions every day to every employee. But you can put the information out there and reiterate it from time to time. For example, you might send out an email to your organization that reads, ‘Ask yourself, What’s the most important choice I’ll make at work today? What do I hope to achieve?’ In time, you will hardwire this type of careful consideration into your company’s culture.

Set crystal clear goals with deadlines.

Have you ever left a meeting thinking your team had made lots of progress, only to find out later that none of the great ideas came to fruition? As deadlines were missed and mistakes were made, everyone conveniently blamed someone else, claiming they didn’t know they were responsible for those tasks. Well, if you didn’t spell out a who-does-what list, maybe they really didn’t know — but just as blame-game-inducing is the anxiety that comes from uncertainty.

People like clarity. Knowing what’s expected of you is the best remedy for fear. That’s why it’s critical to make sure everyone at your organization, including you, has specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timed goals. If someone’s goal isn’t reached, they can blame only themselves. If it is reached, they can reap the rewards.

Encourage employees to write down their goals, and at the end of each meeting or discussion, have them repeat their individual goals back to you. You do the same for them. Don’t leave anything ambiguous. You’ll be amazed at what a difference this makes.

Get people thinking in terms of solutions, not problems.

Cliché as it may sound, a can-do attitude is the remedy for blame addiction and the cornerstone of a culture of responsibility. There’s nothing wrong with telling your followers: “From now on, I want to hear fewer reasons why we can’t and more suggestions for how we can.” Those messages to the group will make your conversations with individuals easier because they will already know your expectations.

Ask them, ‘If can’t wasn’t an option, what would you do? If you can’t blame Bob for not shipping the flier, what can you do? If ‘I was too busy to meet the deadline’ isn’t a valid excuse, what’s the solution?

The challenge as a leader is getting your followers to meet the challenges they face with the right attitude. These questions get them focused on solutions. And when everyone brings a solutions-oriented attitude to the table, the entire culture improves and everyone is driven by results.

Dissect outcomes in a “no excuses” moratorium.

Choices and attitudes/mindsets are all well and good, but let’s face it — you are in the results business. At the end of the day, you either have the outcome you hoped for… or you have a pile of useless excuses. To help your direct reports take more responsibility, examine the results of all projects and initiatives together. Trace how your people’s choices and attitudes impacted the final outcome, and don’t let them (or yourself!) off the hook.

The purest kind of responsibility-based conversation includes clear expectations followed by excuseless discussion of results. The courageous elements of your leadership will manifest most fully in the questions that you ask regarding performance. Your questions are critical to building a high-performance culture.

To help direct your followers to accepting responsibility for their performance, you could ask: “What did you do or not do that led to these results? If you could turn back the clock, what would you do more or less of? Of the things you controlled, which do you think contributed to this success/failure?” These are the big questions that drive “no excuses” performance.

Partner up.

You may have heard of accountability partners in terms of losing weight, exercising more, reaching financial goals, or growing personally or spiritually. But have you ever considered using them in your organization? The fact is, pairing your people up in “accountability teams” that get together twice a month to talk about their goals and their progress can really increase the amount of responsibility everyone feels.

This idea started years ago when my brother Corey and I got together for dinner and began talking about our frustration with the lack of progress we were experiencing in our jobs. We started getting together for dinner once a week and simply asking each other questions about the goals we had set the previous week. The meetings were not designed to make us feel bad or to catch each other failing, but rather to get us to adopt mindsets of execution and performance.

The first few weeks, we saw some minor progress. Over time, our questioning skills sharpened, and with each passing week, the questions we asked were tougher. Consequently, our accomplishments became bigger and quicker-paced. Since then, I’ve encouraged the use of this partner system in many organizations, and it’s always a huge success.

There is absolutely no way your followers can accomplish what they need to accomplish and learn to accept responsibility if you don’t develop the habit of asking big, clear, direct questions delivered in an I-want-you-to-win tone. Your team deserves a leader who is courageous enough to ask and ask often. You will get better at this as you practice it. You will also see results improve over time as your followers get used to thinking about their own roles within the organization, and how their choices and attitudes impact the big picture.


Mike Staver, author of “Leadership Isn’t For Cowards“, is a business coach and speaker with a rare ability to zero in on the fears that prevent leaders from doing what they need to do. He confronts them with the truths they’re pretending not to know and provides the “swift kick” they need to start making the quick decisions that get results — a necessity for survival in a global economy.