Responding to blame

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Dec 01, 2006

How can we best use our freedom to make choices in context of responding to blame?

In Part 1 of this three-part essay, we considered the definition and origin of blame. In part 2, we considered our response to errors made by others. Now in the last part of this essay, we will summarize how we can choose our responses when others blame us.

(This essay is based on my commentary published in the Nov. 1, 2000, issue of JAVMA titled, "Responding to blame by blamectomy and blamotomy," Vol. 217, pages 1295-1299).

Have you ever been blamed for problems associated with your work? Perhaps a client blamed you because of unmet expectations regarding the medical care of one of your patients. Perhaps finger-pointing from a colleague occurred in association with referral of a patient. Or perhaps the hospital director expressed frustration to you about a drop in the hospital's income attributed to the fees you have been charging clients. Whether you were responsible for these problems, have you ever responded defensively by saying, "It's not my fault; don't blame me!"? Did your defensive response make the situation better or worse? How might we more positively respond when we are on the receiving end of blame?

The answer is to make wise choices. One choice is to perform a blamotomy? What is a blamotomy? The Greek suffix "otomy" means "to cut into," for example, a cystotomy to remove bladder stones. Recall, we all suffer from varying degrees of blamosis and blamomas that have multiple causes. The term blamotomy symbolizes our desire to "cut into" or diagnose the underlying causes of errors for which we are to blame so as to eliminate them and prevent them from recurring.

How can we perform a blamotomy? Please consider the following 10 key steps:

1) We should accept responsibility and accountability for our choices and actions. If we accept credit for successes in our lives, why shouldn't we be willing to accept responsibility for our mistakes?

2) Be truthful. Why? What is your response when you learn that others have been untruthful to you? Isn't it true that whatever they say thereafter may be suspected as false, however true it may be? Our response to criticism of our mistakes should be governed by the desire to be honest.

3) Be humble. Why? Because, humility will help us admit a mistake and apologize to others for it. Isn't it true that poor choices get us into trouble, while egotistical pride often keeps us there? Being humble is not synonymous with being weak. It takes great strength to be humble when under provocation. Humility is especially required for a person in a position of authority to apologize to those who are responsible to her/him. A humble apology often will restore peace.

4) Avoid defensively justifying errors to others in order to save face. Trying to save face does not change the facts. In fact, in trying to deceive others, we may succeed in deceiving ourselves. Making the choice to save face usually results in the situation becoming worse. Why? Because saving face is based on an ethically faulty premise. It assumes that a person's reputation is of paramount importance at any cost, even the cost of our relationship with others. That premise is not correct; we must earn a good reputation!

5) We should avoid misrepresenting ourselves by intentionally covering up or hiding mistakes. Why? Because, as exemplified by the Watergate scandal involving President Nixon, when our errors are exposed, our choice to cover them reveals our intent. In addition, cover-ups consume a great deal of energy. Aren't we more likely to receive a just response if we openly admit a fault and shoulder the blame, than if we try to get out from under it?