Cause, Not Blame, Produces Better Performance Feedback

I subscribe to Alan Weiss’s thought provoking monthly email newsletter called Balancing Act. In his latest issue, he offers the following tip:

Here’s a quick secret for getting along and playing nicely in the sandbox: When something goes amiss, don’t look for guilt, look for cause. Focus on correcting the situation and not blaming anyone. The former develops support, the latter enmity.

While he mentions it in a more general context of human relations, it is a good reminder for managers whose employee screws up on a task and the situation calls for feedback.

Depending upon the gravity of the situation and the history of the employee involved, it’s hard not to swing directly to the blame option. Judgments of the employee as incompetent, uncaring, or even malicious flow into our mind. This just makes us angry, a rather destructive frame-of-mind in which to engage the employee in “constructive” feedback, wouldn’t you say?

Operating from a place of anger or frustration activates what author Seth Godin calls ourreptile mind, causing us to block out other explanations. We neglect to consider the staffer’s skill level (training) or other external forces in play such as lack of resources, too many pressures on the employee, or difficulties in the system of work and information flow.

Blame speaks–not favorably–to the imagined intention of the individual. If it is their fault, why look beyond the person to other possible contributing causes?

We need to program into our minds–yes, we’re talking about a mental habit here–a default response that scans for cause, not blame, when a staff member falls short of acceptable performance. Your spirit of problem-solving has a chance of turning around performance AND building a more trusting relationship. The other way never will.

© 2010 – 2016, Ian Cook. All rights reserved.

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Ian Cook, presenter and consultant, works with managers who want to increase their effectiveness as a leader and build a stronger team. To book Ian for a training seminar, team facilitation or keynote presentation, call toll-free at: 1-888-FULCRUM (385-2786) or e-mail: For more articles and book reviews of interest to managers please go to: