Learning Cone and Blame Spiral—The Case of Blame Absorbers

People’s learning paths differ from person to person. Some throw themselves into challenges and learn by doing it; some research the fundamentals before applying knowledge. A subgroup within this range learns the best when they take responsibility regardless of their learning method. Whenever they get a task or topic in their hand, they take it seriously and try their best till the end. Other folks around these people appreciate their responsible behavior.

When this group of people is not mindful or misguided, this behavior goes out of its way. Their specialty turns into absorbing all the responsibility around them while leaving none for others. The situation results in self-blaming in case of failures. While they are on the learning path, they abandon this path and enter the blame spiral—another path full of self-blame.

In this article, I will talk about this journey and a few ways to prevent the learning cone from switching to a blame spiral.

Learning Cone

Learning Cone

Learning starts when we move out of our comfort zone and discover new things. Regardless of the topic, we begin with close-to-none knowledge and look for ways to enhance our wisdom. In engineering teams, people are often more open-minded in the beginning because they are clueless about the topic and have various options to improve. Being open-minded helps these people look at others and approach them with curiosity.

After some time, they start applying new knowledge in their work and making mistakes once they gain confidence. If the manager encourages them to learn more and discover more paths instead of judging for mistakes, the learning exponentially increases. The more encouragement and appreciation they get, the more responsibility they begin to take. Making many mistakes on the way helps them to learn even more and gain enough experience. This responsibility, experience, and expanding knowledge create new opportunities and a steep growth trajectory.

Although navigating this trajectory becomes difficult after a while because of the endless learning possibilities, good engineers get guidance and help from others and set their trajectory right.

But not everyone advances in that direction. Some people tend to leave the growth trajectory and, without the right support, easily absorb all the responsibility and blame. They tumble themselves into the blame spiral.

Becoming a Blame Absorber — What is a blame absorber?

In a blame spiral, blame absorbers begin to lose learning opportunities. The beneficial responsibility turns into a detrimental self-blame. Suddenly, they leave out the infinite learning cone and find themselves in the blame spiral. Although they were making mistakes all the way long, how they approach these mistakes shapes what they gain from them.

They start taking on more tasks and, with that, more responsibilities. As they feel responsible for mistakes, they try to cover them by taking even more responsibility. The spiral of responsibility turns into guilt that pushes them more and more. After a while, they become frustrated and start to think that only they take responsibility; other people don’t care about anything as much as they do. They are the one who takes the job seriously to work extra hours and solve as many issues as possible. They keep blaming themselves, starting to resent others, and becoming frustrated with all the burdens they have.

Blame absorbers, as Sheila Heen calls them, are the people who take all responsibilities to themselves in a problem or a mistake while leaving none for the others. They blame themselves for the failure and discard the other factors in the situation. A few common phrases blame absorbers use are

  • I should have known that it would fail.
  • I could have seen this might happen.
  • I would have tried fixing the bug on time.

We see blame absorbers both in work and personal relationships. Imagine a couple getting separated. A blame absorber, in this situation, would say, “If I wasn’t behaving like that, my partner wouldn’t leave me. It’s all on me; my partner was perfect, and I screwed up.” What the person misjudges here is that both have a role in the break up because a healthy relationship requires a minimum of two people to keep it healthy, and a failed relationship requires two people to fail. Even if one side makes a mistake, the problem can’t be solely loaded onto them. Always, there are underlying problems that both sides couldn’t recognize at the time of the breakup.

At work, blame absorbers play a different role. Let’s use a delayed project as an example. One of the engineers who took on many responsibilities feels responsible for the delay. When the responsibility feeling turns into self-blame, the blame absorbers load mistakes of various factors on themselves. “I should have foreseen the increasing risks,” they say. “Why haven’t I tried to mitigate the problem when it was minor?” they ask. And in all that, they often say, “I could have worked more or harder”—and sometimes they do work harder. This past-wishful thinking increases their stress level, and they get into the blame spiral where even a tiny mistake becomes detrimental.

Learning Cone replacing Blame Spiral

At the beginning of that spiral, their behaviors look good from the outside, and they get positive feedback for their responsible and accountable behavior. The feedback becomes a positive reinforcer for the blame spiral to grow.

However, as their blame spiral grows and stays unmanaged, they start to impact others. The blame absorber’s spiral touches other people’s learnings cones and blocks them.

Blame Spiral’s impact on others

Others begin avoiding accountability because someone takes care of the problems every time, so they don’t have to. In the end, a single point of failure emerges, and the team becomes dysfunctional.

As a result, blame absorber increases their chance of getting frustrated and hinder learning opportunities. What was once a learning cone is now a blame spiral that impacts everyone around it. That thin line marks the switch to unlearning mode.

The only good side of the blame spiral is nobody gets stuck in it forever. People constantly switch between the learning cone and the spiral.

Moving Between Learning Cone and Blame Spiral

Moving from the learning cone into the blame spiral looks like an instant action. Yet, it’s not a one-way road. In some cases, the blame absorber gets into the spiral for a moment and comes back. If the person knows themselves and is aware of their actions, they can pull themselves back to the learning cone. Yet, the outside factors affect how frequently the blame absorber abandons the learning cone. If the manager often imputes the failures to their lack of competency or knowledge, it becomes easy for the blame absorber to get into the blame spiral.

From the blame absorber’s perspective, once they cross the line, the blame spiral looks like a one-way road. However, like in every journey in our lives, it’s a two-way street; there is always a road back. And the best side is that whenever they turn back, their learning cone grows a bit.

The best action for a blame absorber who often gets into a blame spiral is to be aware of the behavior. Once they name the situation with “Ah, I’m going into blame spiral again,” they automatically pull themselves back to the learning cone. Awareness and mindfulness are keys to staying in the learning cone.

However, developing mindfulness is a difficult journey; that’s why I like Marshall B. Rosenberg’s approach to taking responsibility for our feelings, not for every task.

Taking Responsibility for Our Feelings

In Non-Violent Communication, Marshall B. Rosenberg states that what others do may be the stimulus of our feelings but not the cause. Other factors in any failure might boost certain feelings, but they are rarely the main reason for how we feel. Rosenberg explains how we choose one of the four options when receiving a negative message:

  1. We can blame ourselves. (a.k.a. blame absorbing)
  2. We can blame others.
  3. We can sense our own feelings and needs.
  4. We can sense others’ feelings and needs.

The first option is where a blame absorber redirects the negativeness to themselves. When their manager says, “You are unorganized!” it will reflect as “I should have been more organized.” They embrace the judgment of other people and reflect on themselves.

In reality, judgments of others are alienated expressions of our own unmet needs. The more we are able to connect our feelings to our own needs, the easier it is for others to respond compassionately. When we embrace our own feelings and needs and express them, we distinguish between giving from the heart and being motivated by guilt. In other words, everybody needs certain things, and when they are not met, they feel something. If we express our needs, we have a better chance of getting them met. If we don’t value our needs, others may not either.

The framework Rosenberg uses is connecting the feeling with the need by using a sentence: “I feel ... because I need ...” When the manager says, “You’re unorganized!” the reflection changes and becomes powerful “I feel overwhelmed because I need to have some space and time to process all the incoming work and organize them.” Now the self-blame can turn into an action item and fulfill the need of a blame absorber without getting them into the blame spiral.

How do you stop blaming yourself?

If you’re a blame absorber, it’s easy to blame yourself for many things. Once you get into the blame spiral, it’s difficult to jump back to healthy responsibility. The first thing is to look at the bigger picture. It’s not always easy to do it by yourself. You might get help from a trusted person (or your manager at work) who can show you how the various factors work together.

If you want to do it yourself, create a map of the situation. Answer a few questions: Who are the people in the situation? What are the processes? The goal is not to find something else to blame; it’s to look for how everything plays together. For example, the project got delayed, and you’re blaming yourself for it. Look for who else is working on the project and your stakeholders, and define their knowledge and experience on the project and work. Stay impartial and only state the facts you know.

Once you put each element on a map, the next step is figuring out how these elements play together. The task distribution might not be right; someone else might have been assigned a task they can’t handle, and you might have helped them figure out how. It can, in turn, delay your task. Maybe, you had to wait for a week to get a confirmation on a task you delivered. Look for connections like these. Still, you’re not looking for anything to blame. Don’t judge or evaluate; only define the situation.

Now you know the people and processes, it’s time to find out the external factors such as how the company operates, how the business is going, and how much workload everyone has. Maybe priorities shifted along the way and your stakeholders prioritize another project while delaying yours. Look for how external factors contribute to the problem.

Once you have everything, you will see some of your feelings change. The holistic view turns the negative blaming into an understanding of the big picture. When you see all the factors together, your part in the problem becomes less significant

Now, it’s time to use Rosenberg’s formula to express your feelings and needs (“I feel ... because I need ....”) that I mentioned above. It will help you to figure out your unmet needs.

When you bring all factors together, look at the learning opportunities lying in front of you. If you keep blaming yourself and reducing all elements to a single point (you), you miss the opportunities for further growth. When there is a problem, there is rarely a one-and-only-one cause. There are always multiple factors that contribute to the problem. (It always takes two people to have a conflict. A poorly managed workload leads teams to delay projects.) Figure them out early on to avoid getting into a blame spiral.

If you’re not a blame absorber but working with blame absorbers, how can you guide them?

How to Guide and Lead Blame Absorbers

The path is very similar to how a blame absorber stops blaming themselves. While explaining, don’t load all responsibility into anyone or the system. Let the blame absorber understand how all the factors play a role by showing all factors together. Then help them understand their part and enable them to take full responsibility for that part, not for the others. If you let this slip, it builds resentment over time. The absorber starts to think they’re always to blame, and others don’t take responsibility at all. If you’re building an ownership culture, be careful and show people the bigger picture and how you, they, and others are responsible together.

Blame absorbers are everywhere. It’s not a personality; it’s a behavior that everyone develops from time to time. For some people, it happens often; for some, it’s rare. However, there is usually a person who blames themselves for things happening around them. Look around yourself; I’m sure you will find someone who behaves like that. If nobody came to your mind, let me make it easier: I’m one of them. I often blame myself for failures around me. And if you have any questions or comments, please send me a tweet at @candosten or contact me on Polywork.


Complement with “A Systematic Approach to Give Feedback to Blame Absorbers,” “Why is Listening with Empathy an Important Skill for Every Leader?” and “I’m Sorry. The Project is Delayed, and It’s All My Fault.”

Long Form

May 19, 2022
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