How passing the buck can lead to a toxic workplace culture

I’m fascinated how you can raise your children in the same household and they each develop their own unique personalities.  Whilst my three girls are very different from one another, I do notice behaviour that is common amongst them.  The behaviour that is common is not fixed behaviour – it trends, like music charts.

The other day I was looking through the photo gallery on my phone and came across photos taken by my 4-year-old (Elki). She had taken selfies.  The photos comprised of pouty lips, a head tilt and a hand peace sign.  A little concerned (I must say), I wondered what had made her take such photos.

Rewind to earlier that morning, I remembered that when Elki and I were getting ready for the day, in the background were her two older sisters (12yrs & 9yrs) playing around with the phone, taking silly photos.  BINGO! Elki had mimicked the behaviour of her sisters.  Had she not been exposed to that, I doubt she would have adopted this behaviour.

Mimicking or copycat behaviour is nothing new of course.  In the world of psychology, it is termed social contagion.  Whilst there are many definitions of ‘social contagion’, an article in The Journal of Memetics, Memetics & Social Contagion: Two Sides of the Same Coin? Dr Paul Marsden suggests that the one of the clearest and most inclusive definitions of social contagion is that proposed by The Handbook of Social Psychology (Lindzey and Aronsson 1985):

“the spread of affect or behaviour from one crowd participant to another; one person serves as the stimulus for the imitative actions of another.”

Little Elki imitated the actions/behaviour of another (her sisters) who served as the stimulus.  They had not intended to have that impact on Elki’s behaviour, nor had Elki intentionally received it.

There are various forms and examples of social contagion.  One of these contagions is ‘rule breaking’ or ‘rule violation’ behaviour.  A person is more likely to engage in rule violation e.g. speeding, teenage smoking, if the person has been exposed to that behaviour.  Likewise, in deliberate self-harm (DHS) behaviour, those that are vulnerable are at an increased likelihood to copycat incidents of suicide.  This is generally why we don’t hear reports of suicide in the media. (The Journal of Memetics, Memetics & Social Contagion: Two Sides of the Same Coin? Dr Paul Marsden)

A behaviour that is more common to the workplace that may not be so obvious, is the projection of blame.  More recently, research carried out by Nathaniel Fast and Larissa Teidens, published in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, has shown that blame is socially contagious. Their research showed:

“merely being exposed to someone else making a blame attribution for a mistake was enough to cause people to turn around and blame others for completely unrelated failures”

Being late to work, not submitting a report on time, making a mistake, giving the wrong advice to a client are all examples that may lead us to blame someone or something else.  When these problems arise, we fear that we will be perceived negatively by others, in turn destroying our self-image.  As a result, we transfer the problem so that the negativity doesn’t stick with us.

The research around socially contagious behaviour supports the thesis that blame is a virus that can spread like wildfire through your business.

If you or others in your workplace are projecting blame, it is likely others will catch the ‘blame virus’ and it will continue to spread.  This is not because individuals believe blame is ok, they process it as a self-protection goal.

Reflection Time: when a problem presents at work, do you blame? Who do you blame?

Blame is impulse behaviour.  It’s like passing a hot potato.  We try to get rid of the problem as quick as possible.  If you pass the ‘hot potato’, its likely that your team members/colleagues will then continue to pass the ‘hot potato’.  How can this lead to a toxic culture?

If blame is a common behaviour in your workplace, it is likely that individuals are not accepting responsibility for the things that they have control over.  As a result, they cannot learn and grow.  As a ‘blamer’, others will lose trust in you and the less likeable you become. Collaboration and problem solving is destroyed.

What’s the alternative?

The alternative to blame, is accepting responsibility for the stuff that you can control.  Accepting responsibility allows you to learn from your mistakes, grown personally and professionally.  Most of all, you become more trustworthy and likeable.  Who doesn’t want to be trustworthy & likeable?

To understand more about avoiding blame and accepting responsibility, you can read my blog on The Positive Impact of Accepting Responsibility.  Want to workshop it?  I have created workshops and presentations with impact on blame & accepting responsibility.  Let’s talk… Amy Tower