The Blame Game: 3 Ways We Respond to Failure

It’s hard learning from mistakes and failures, because most of us want to either sweep them under the rug or shift the blame outside of ourselves. It’s human nature to want to protect ourselves, but when the blame game gets in the way of learning from mistakes, we’re endangering our careers, our results, and our reputation.

How people respond to failure and negative feedback is a major determinant of career success. For one thing, we learn better from failure than success. And yet, we spend more time thinking about and talking about our achievements than we do our misses.

In an interview with Harvard Business Review (April 2011), former Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley said, “I think I learned more from my failures than from my successes in all my years as a CEO. I think of my failures as a gift. Unless you view them that way, you won’t learn from failure, you won’t get better – and the company won’t get better.”

And yet, here’s the problem: ask any smart executive how they respond to failure or negative feedback, and they’ll give you some great answers full of intelligent rationality. They can’t see what others see, anymore than you and I can see our own flaws. They play the blame game, instead of looking at the gifts of failure.

Reaction to negativity is emotional and occurs in split seconds from the subconscious brain. There are three ways to play the blame game. Research from psychologist Saul Rosenzweig in the 1930s shows that we respond in three typical ways:

  1. Extrapunitive: Some people are prone to unfairly blaming others.
  2. Impunitive: Others either deny that failure has occurred or they deny their own role in it.
  3. Intropunitive: Others judge themselves too harshly and imagine failures where none exist.

Many managers perceive and react to failure inappropriately according to their personality types. It’s no wonder we don’t learn from failures, and this leads to other failures repeating themselves in similar ways.

Who among us hasn’t at some point in our careers assigned or avoided blame in a self-serving way? When we do, we suffer negative fallout. On the other hand, some of us take self-criticism too far, and as a result end up stagnating because we’re afraid to take risks.

Managers at all levels in organizations can fix their flawed responses to mistakes.  Here are some suggestions from authors Ben Dattner and Robert Hogan, in an article “Can You Handle Failure?” (HBR, April 2011):

  • Cultivate self-awareness: A number of assessments can make you aware of your personality type and style. Ask your coach about these.
  • Cultivate political awareness: A 360-degree assessment or interviews are helpful to find out how others perceive you.
  • Develop new strategies: Working with a coach or mentor will help you practice responding in new ways so that you can start learning and stop blaming. As me how executive coaching processes can help you.
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