Have you ever worked with a person who always says either one or more of these sentences?
- I should have done that.
- I could have done...
- I should have known this might happen. It won’t happen again.
- I made a mistake, not others. It’s all on me.
At first glance, all of these phrases look good because it shows that the person owns their work and has a sense of responsibility. These good intentions are usually welcomed and appreciated by their leaders and colleagues. However, people who use these phrases, a.k.a. blame absorbers as Sheila Heen calls them, often don’t notice that they—together with the team—lose opportunities to learn lessons from failures and mistakes.
While working with blame absorbers, leaders have to take precautious steps. Otherwise, it leads to a toxic and unlearning environment. When a blame absorber takes all responsibilities for a failure, none is left for others. When people own one mistake that many other factors contributed to, they overlook the reasons. They lose sight of the big picture.
At the same time, this behavior is detrimental to the blame absorber. Letting this behavior slip causes the person to absorb all the blame and build resentment over time. The absorber will start to think they’re always to blame, and others don’t take responsibility at all. They also begin thinking they are not good at their job, and therefore, the situation might result in high-level stress and burnout.
How to work with and guide a blame absorber?
Working with a blame absorber requires listening well and approaching with empathy. We need to unload some responsibility while keeping it at a healthy level. Understanding where they stand starts with explaining why we are having a conversation about it. Many leaders miss this point and confuse the people reporting to them.
It starts with walking them through the big picture and broadening their perspective. At this stage, it’s crucial not to blame any person but instead focus on all the factors contributing to the problem.
Once they comprehend the whole picture, we need to help them see how they contribute, their behavior, and their impact. Using a concrete situation as an example is always a good strategy. There are various methods to uncover behavior, but I found the Situation, Behavior, Impact (SBI) Feedback Model helpful for this case. The goal of the SBI model is not to give any suggestions but show them one scene overall.
In the SBI Model, we explain the Situation as straightforwardly as possible, without any personal comment or remark. For example, the situation can be “Yesterday in the Post-Mortem Analysis meeting when you explained the root cause.” The situation doesn’t indicate anything besides defining the exact moment.
When we define Behavior in the next step, it’s crucial to avoid stating opinions and judgments. The behavior should explain the person's behavior without guessing any reason behind it in that specific situation. For example, the behavior can be “When you said the root cause was all your fault and you should have thought it before.” The behavior doesn’t state any personal opinion or judgment.
The last step is explaining the Impact of the person on us, the team, and the organization. This is the part we objectively approach the overall picture. In the SBI model, the Impact usually defines the person’s behavior in a few sentences. However, when working with blame absorbers, we have to add more information to show them how their behaviors create problems.
As they absorb the blame, they suck themselves in a black hole and often can’t see the overall picture. Therefore, we need to show them how they create responsibility conflicts. We need to explain when they take extra responsibility—which doesn’t belong to them—it confuses people and makes them adversaries. Then, we need to show them how the overall system is and why taking unnecessary responsibility nudges others to act in an adversarial way.
The explanation should be done with empathy and humility, not in a preacher or prosecutor mode. Instead of blaming them, we have to explicitly show we want to help these people. Before giving the feedback using the SBI model, it’s also helpful to explain the SBI model and how it works. It opens their mind if they haven’t heard the model before.
While explaining, we also have to be careful not to load all responsibility into ourselves or the system. We should let the blame absorber understand how all the factors play a role by showing them together. We need to help them understand their part and take full responsibility for that part, not others.
Blame absorbing is a habit, and changing habits is a difficult process. This approach won’t work like magic when we only do it once. Changing behaviors need constant iteration and willingness to change. If the person puts on the defense walls, we have to re-iterate our approach. Probably, we’ve done something wrong on the way, and they brought up the walls. We have to build trust first and listen to them with empathy. The change won’t happen quickly; it will need time and effort. We have to be patient and not give up.