How Do You Avoid Playing the Blame Game?

When my second son graduated from high school with honors we were very proud of him. When all the celebration and fanfare were over, I asked him, “If there was one thing that you could do over, what would you do differently?” He responded, “I would have ignored all the blame and criticism from my coaches and just gone out and played my game.” When I asked him about the kind of blame that he was talking about, he shared that it was very draining to hear constant criticism every day, and it created a lot of unnecessary pressure that impacted his ability and everyone else’s to play the game.

From my own experience in the corporate world, I have noticed that blaming often takes the form of shaming others as a way of manipulating them into doing something. Over the years of observing many interactions, I have noticed certain types of conversational manipulation that others have used. It almost appears that blaming takes the form of a game that individuals play to get what they wanted in the moment or to avoid taking responsibility. Because we teach people to provide feedback with a data-interpretation sequence, notice how this same sequence shows up in an attempt at manipulating another’s behavior.  

In order to avoid being manipulated, you must recognize the types of blame “cards” that people seem to want to play. Some of the types of blame seem to appear most often in these seven different forms: sympathy, guilt, no-fault, score, coercion, reward, or morality.

The Sympathy Card

This tactic is about creating sympathy in the listener for you or what you want them to do, so that they will be moved to go do it. It might sound like this: “We agreed that we would begin our team strategy meeting at 8:00 a.m. You didn’t arrive until 8:45 a.m. I know how hard it must be as a single parent and trying to juggle your work responsibilities and your children, but I’m counting on you to work late this week to meet our deadline. You need to be here.”  

Such a statement would obviously reemphasize the importance of keeping a commitment and would probably cause the other person to feel badly for breaking their commitment.


The Guilt Card

This form of blame is closely akin to the sympathy card, but its use is intended to make the other person feel guilty and responsible for whatever outcome resulted from their behavior. Such a statement of guilt might sound like this: “You said you would be here on time. You were 45 minutes late. You wasted 45 minutes of 10 people’s time and angered everyone by showing up late. Because of your tardiness, everyone is now going to have to work longer hours today.”

This statement assigns blame for the ensuing results and implies that it is the individual’s responsibility to fix the problem.

The No-Fault Card

This card is usually used in response to someone playing the guilt card. If someone has played the guilt card, then the target simply might play the no-fault card. Such a response would sound like this: “You told me the meeting was on Tuesday in room 3A at 8:00 a.m. Then you changed the time and place. It is not my fault that you forgot to tell me.” Or they might have also said, “If your directions weren’t so poor, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten lost trying to get there on time.

Simply, the no-fault card is like saying, “Don’t blame me, blame yourself for doing such a poor job in the first place.”

The Score Card

This type of blame is based on the notion of keeping score. If one of the individuals in the exchange feels that the score is not even, then they will take steps to even the score by making a statement like, “On the last break I bought you a soft drink. I think it is your turn to buy me one on this break?”

Notice that the last statement is an implied interpretation that is framed as a question. This tactic is very powerful because it requires the individual to overcome the presumption guilt in the question. For example, it is difficult for most people to say, “No, I didn’t think that accepting your drink meant that I had to buy you one the next time around.” Most likely, the individual will go return the favor because they felt obligated by need to make things fair or even.

The Coercion Card

This tactic is played as a negative consequence that will be inflicted if the target individual does not go along or comply with a request. A statement of coercion might sound like this: “You said you wanted to be involved in this project, and then you didn’t show up for the meeting. I guess you really didn’t want my help writing your proposal after all.” Notice that this kind of a statement is not so aggressive to be offensive, but it is implied that if you aren’t going to do what I want, then there will be consequences to you. 

The Reward Card

This form of blame is highly effective in manipulating behavior. The people who use this tactic use some form of praise, whether true or not, to gain compliance. For example, they might say something like, “You said you would give the presentation for our team. Now you are saying that you don’t have time. You are the best presenter on our team, and it will really make you—and all of us—look good if you give the presentation.” Such a plea is pretty hard to resist if you are the kind of person who likes to please others.

The Morality Card

Bringing morality into the game is about appealing to the person’s sense of right or wrong. It might sound like this: “You said you would be on our team, and now you are saying that you don’t want to. It is not fair that you gave your word and committed to us and now you have decided to do something else.” Of course if the person doesn’t have a strong value system, they won’t care what is said, but for those who want to do the right thing, such a statement is very compelling.

So what do you do when people start to pull these cards and play the blame game? Here are a few suggestions for handling these situations.

Notice the game. You have to be able to see what the other person is doing in the conversation to be able to manage it. If you can’t see the dynamic, your feelings may get the best of you, and you will do what they want, particularly is some kind of guilt is involved. 

Decide whether you want to play. If their statement makes sense to you and you decide that doing what they want would be in your best interest, then there is nothing wrong with doing as they ask. What is important about your decision is making your action the result of a conscious choice.

Call it like it is. When someone pulls one of these cards on you, you can always choose to make a statement calling it exactly how you see it. For example, if someone pulled the morality card on you, there is nothing wrong with saying something like, “You know it is important to me to do the right thing, but in the current situation I have a greater responsibility in doing what is right for my client and meeting my commitment to them.” Notice in this situation you acknowledged the morality of the situation and moved the conversation to a higher sense of morality than what they were wanting you to do.

Identify who is playing and how. The reason that people play the blame game is because it works. If you can start to notice who is playing these cards, then you can notice who is doing what, to whom, and when. Being able to recognize how they are playing will help you spend some time preparing for the tactics that they typically employ and not be pulled into the game.

Talking through tough issues is about learning, discovery, collaboration, and cooperation; it is not about manipulation. If you are frequently confronted by an individual who uses these tactics, you have to recognize what is happening and refuse to play the game. If on the other hand you have used these tactics to get what you want, you will only create defensiveness and resentment in your listener. Engaging in such behavior will damage morale, create an unhealthy work environment, and increase employee turnover. Game over.