Balancing act: Navigating the office 'blame game' can be difficult

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 24 2013 2:26 p.m. MDT

Have you ever taken the blame for a mistake at work that wasn't your fault?

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Life as a middle manager offers both challenges and rewards.

One item solidly in the former category is learning to deal with demands both from people above you and from people below you on the corporate organization chart.

During my years in middle management, this particular challenge has led me to see my role as that of a translator.

I think it's my job to listen carefully to what my bosses want — for example, a new project or product — and to help translate that vision into concrete, achievable goals for the people on my team.

At the same time, I need to listen carefully to what my team members want — for example, more resources or added clarity about the vision for a project — and to help translate things I can't figure out into meaningful requests that my boss can consider.

I think most middle managers engage in this delicate dance every day, and whether we're succeeding in our jobs depends in large part on how well we're handling this translation function.

But sometimes the system breaks down, regardless of what a manager is doing. No employee is perfect, and it's inevitable that you or someone on your team is going to make a mistake, miss a deadline or send a project off on an incorrect tangent.

When these problems crop up, the top bosses often want to know how, why and who is to blame. Then what do you do? Do you throw the team member who made the mistake to the wolves and let him fend for himself? Or do you accept the blame on his behalf, since he's part of your team and, therefore, your responsibility?

I'm guessing that many of us have "taken one for the team" at some point during our professional careers. I know I have.

That's why I was somewhat surprised by a new survey in which just 30 percent of senior managers interviewed said they had accepted the blame for a work mistake that wasn't their fault.

The survey was developed by administrative staffing service company OfficeTeam. It was conducted by an independent research firm, which completed telephone interviews with more than 1,000 senior managers at companies with 20 or more employees.

I'm not saying I have to take the blame for someone else's mistakes on a daily or even weekly basis — I've been fortunate to manage teams of highly skilled workers who rarely make major errors. But I have often accepted the hit for minor mistakes, as I feel that's part of my job as the manager of the team.

According to the OfficeTeam press release about the survey, I'm much like other managers in this regard. Of those who said they had accepted the blame for others' mistakes, 34 percent said they did so because they felt indirectly responsible for the problem.

Another 28 percent said they took blame that wasn't theirs because they didn't want to get others in trouble, and 25 percent said they did so because it was a minor infraction that wasn't worth an argument.

Twelve percent indicated that they took the hit for someone else's mistake because an explanation would have been more trouble than it was worth.

I think all of those reasons have applied to me at one time or another. But even taking those things into consideration, is it a good idea to do the time when you didn't do the crime?

"It's best to accept responsibility when you've made a mistake at work," said Robert Hosking, executive director of OfficeTeam, in the press release about the survey. "However, sometimes professionals feel compelled to take the blame for something they didn't do. Depending on the infraction, being the scapegoat only hurts your own reputation."

The release offers five tips to help people navigate the "blame game" at work:

"Admit when you're wrong," the OfficeTeam release says. "It's better to acknowledge a mistake you've made than to try to deny it, cover things up or shift the blame."

"Move on." When something goes wrong, don't get wrapped up in pointing fingers. Focus on what should be done to resolve the issue and avoid similar problems in the future.

"Don't always be the fall guy (or girl)," the release suggests. "It's understandable for employees to cover for a colleague from time to time, but try not to make a habit of it. The individual who made the error may continue to make mistakes, and you will be the one whose job could be at risk."

"Keep everyone honest." The release says this includes clearly outlining expectations for a project, as well as each team member's responsibilities.

"Give credit where it's due. Acknowledge colleagues for their accomplishments and call attention to group successes," the OfficeTeam release says. "Make sure you're also getting the recognition you deserve by providing status reports to your manager."

I'm a huge believer in that last point. While I'm hesitant to deflect blame to a team member, I enjoy sending praise in their direction. After all, they're the ones in the trenches day after day, and it's their work that makes me look good as a manager. I want them to get all the credit for successes, because I think that reflects well on them as individuals and on us as a team.

Morale is an issue here, too. I've worked for supervisors who were quick to blame their team members for mistakes while simultaneously taking all the credit for the group's accomplishments. Those were not happy, productive teams.

I'd be interested in your ideas on this topic. Have you ever taken the blame for a mistake at work that wasn't your fault? Why did you do it? What was the outcome for you and for the person you were protecting?

Drop me an email or leave a comment online, and I'll include some of your responses when I revisit this issue in a future column.

Email your comments to kratzbalancingact@gmail.com or post them online at deseretnews.com. Follow me on Twitter at gkratzbalancing or on Facebook on my journalist page.

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