Every time we try to relax it seems we have to face another setback, and a common reaction is to look for someone to blame. Why?

The reasons are both emotional and cognitive. We feel angry and/or frightened: blaming someone releases some of those negative feelings. We also need to make sense of what’s happening: if we decide to blame someone it makes us feel we understand better what happened and why.

But is this tendency to blame the best way to react? It doesn’t appear to be – there’s no increase in general well-being or a growing sense of understanding.

Blame culture is defined by David Wilkinson at Oxford as an environment where people or teams are singled out for blame and criticism – a situation that can lead to decreased job satisfaction, higher levels of staff turnover, a reduction in work engagement and productivity, and decreased innovation and creativity. According to Naresh Khatri at the University of Missouri, blame culture damps down willingness to take risks, a necessary part of innovation and creativity.

Blame culture also discourages individuals from taking responsibility because of fear of criticism or punishment. Alessandra Gorini and colleagues at the University of Milan asked 249 healthcare providers to express their fear of blame and/or punishment if they made a medical error. Practitioners at all levels feared being blamed – even more than they feared punishment.

Some people are more likely to assign blame than others. One study found people who scored high on the need for social approval were more likely to blame their partner or experimental factors than themselves.

If you wish to step back from blame culture, what’s the best way?

Start by considering the circumstances in which the error occurred. Were they under the control of the person you wish to blame? If not, rather than blaming, suggest what that individual might do better next time.

William Runciman, an anaesthetist at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, encourages us to consider the difference between blameworthy behaviours – those that must be reported to ensure proper regulation of professional behaviour and maintain trust – and inevitable human error. If it’s the latter, blame is unhelpful.

Resolve to decrease your reliability on social approval. Instead, work out what you think happened and why. Try not to worry about what others might think of your conclusion. Finally, rather than ascribing blame, figure out what the mistake taught us, and look for ways to apply that knowledge.

The Daily Telegraph

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