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Taking the blame

Kristen Intlekofer / Spring 2012 Posted in Politics+Society

Brian Gunia wasn't happy. As a young management consultant, he'd worked on seven projects — all positive experiences, he says. But on his eighth, in which his firm was doing some difficult work for a state government client, things started to go wrong, and to make matters worse, Gunia's project manager had a habit of sidestepping blame and throwing the rest of the team under the bus. Gunia was struck by how demoralizing the manager's behavior was, and he started to form an idea.

After a diffuse failure — defined as one for which several people share responsibility — individuals face a choice, says Gunia, now an assistant professor at the Carey Business School. He calls it the blame-taker's dilemma: In the wake of a group blunder, what should you do? Protect your colleagues by volunteering to shoulder the blame, or protect yourself at all costs and avoid responsibility? He says, "The dilemma is really that your intuition — evade blame — conflicts with what others would like you to do — take the blame."

Three years after that experience, Gunia began seriously exploring the idea for his doctoral dissertation at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Through several studies, he found that blame-taking, though rare, was actually an effective career booster. In general, when someone took the blame for a group mistake, that person later received higher performance ratings and was awarded a slight pay raise; by comparison, those who evaded blame were given lower performance ratings and suffered pay cuts.

Why this works has to do with the two elements of a successful apology — taking blame and expressing remorse — and the different levels of importance placed on each, depending on context. If you listen to most corporate apologies, for example, you'll probably hear an expression of remorse —"we're sorry"— but you won't hear individuals accepting blame. This can still work with the public because with something like the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, people knew who was at fault — BP. What they wanted to hear was remorse for the damage caused by the spill. But Gunia says that when people take this strategy and try to apply it within an organization, it is not as successful. When you're part of a group blunder, your colleagues are primarily concerned not with remorse but with pinning down the blame. Only after blame has been assigned can everyone else relax and start to focus on fixing the problem. "By taking blame, you prevent the blame from spreading to the other people who were also involved," Gunia says, adding that it doesn't necessarily have to be the team leader who steps forward. A lower-level employee who accepts responsibility for a diffuse fail- ure — and, by doing so, prevents blame from going up the chain — is likely to be rewarded by a grateful supervisor.

Gunia's study even showed that taking the blame for failures of integrity, as opposed to failures of competence or skill, offered the same benefits. "According to past research, you would think it would backfire for integrity failures, because integrity failures are really damning," Gunia says. "But what the results actually showed, and continue to show across a couple of studies, to my surprise, is that that wasn't the case." The positive act of taking on blame counters the negative effect of a lapse in integrity.

Gunia now says he's interested in exploring blame-taking in a medical context. For physicians, "there's a concern that you're going to get sued if you admit culpability in some way," but there are indications that this is not necessarily true, he says. For example, the University of Michigan Health System adopted an official apology policy in 2001, vowing to: "Apologize and learn when we're wrong, explain and vigorously defend when we're right, and view court as a last resort." Since instituting the new policy, the hospital's malpractice claims have dropped 62 percent—a savings of $2 million a year.

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