Tim on Leadership

Musings on Management and Leadership from Tim Parker

Take the Blame

One thing that always annoys me from the folks who work for me, or peers from other departments, is when they cannot shoulder blame.  The rule is simple: if your team messes up, you messed up.  This is a fundamental rule of management, to my mind.  As the leader of a group, I am responsible for the group's performance.  If something goes wrong, it is my fault for not knowing about it and fixing it earlier.  Blaming someone specifically in my group is something you will never hear from me.

Perhaps circumstances conspire that something goes wrong at the last minute.  That doesn't mean it wasn't my fault, but it is also my responsibility to not blame an individual in my group specifically when asked what went wrong.  Targeting an individual, by and large, is simply passing the buck and not assuming responsibility.  That's a bad thing, and shows a leader who isn't willing to help the team out properly.  It's quite a different thing to have a talk with the person (or team) that messed up and let them understand the issues and the fact that the failure is because of their mistakes or oversights, but that conversation should never go outside the room with that individual or team.  Even to their peers, you should never hear about the mistakes attributed to an individual.

Many managers I've worked for (and with as peers) don't believe in this rule.  If something goes wrong in their department, they are only too happy to point the finger and absolve themselves of any responsibility.  But even if it was something they could not have prevented or predicted, to the rest of the staff pointing the blame on one person simply shows that there is no shared responsibility.  That to me, at least, is not what being a leader is about.

So, any time something goes wrong in a release or product, there are two things I always do.  First is identify the cause and discuss with the individuals involved what went wrong, why it went wrong, how to fix it now, and how to prevent the same mistake happening again.  But that discussion is only with the ones responsible, and perhaps their lead, but that's all.  The second thing to do is be open about the mistake to the team and the company, explain what went wrong and how it is being rectified, and should the blame for the error myself.  My team, my responsibility.  Do that, even out of sight, and word gets around and respect is earned.  The team knows you have their back.

The exact opposite is true when something goes right.  I never accept the credit, but always highlight the team or the individuals responsible.  They deserve the accolades, not me. 

Sure, it's an unfair situation.  Something goes wrong it's my fault.  Something goes right it was the team that did good.  Some of the leaders I mentor think this means it's a no-win situation for the leader.  But it isn't, because when the team realizes you will defend them when things are bad, and give them the glory when things are good, they will have your back and trust you.  Much better than having them think you will throw them to the wolves at the first sign of a problem.  Team morale improves dramatically when the team can trust their leader.  And that means everything is better.  And so what if I have to take the blame?  It happens rarely, and the happier the team gets with me, the less often it happens!