The Blame Game

Dr. Relly Nadler:
Today, we have Dr. Ben Dattner. He has a book that’s called The Blame Game. Ben is a psychologist and I met Ben years ago at a couple of different associations and I have really been following his work for quite a while.

Dr. Dattner is a Ph.D., and organizational psychologist, and he is the founder of Dattner Consulting. It’s a workplace consulting firm based in New York City. He has helped a wide variety of corporate and non-profit organizations sort through this idea of credit and blame. Ben’s consulting services enable organizations to make better hiring and staffing decisions and also enhance the professional capabilities of managers and employees, to get your teams to be more effective, and to reduce the amount of interpersonal and intergroup conflict.

In part, by embracing this candor and this accuracy when it comes to how you handle credit and how you handle blame.

Ben is also an adjunct professor at NYU where he teaches Organizational Development and Industrial Psychology in the MA program and in the Graduate School of Arts and Science. He’s taught strategic career and management in the executive MBA program at Stern Business School. Ben received a BA in psychology from Harvard, and MA and Ph.D. in Industrial and Organization Psychology from NYU. There he was the McCracken Fellow and his doctoral dissertation analyzed the relationship between narcissism and fairness in the workplace. His Master’s Thesis examined the impact of trust on negotiations.

We have someone who is well educated with us today. Ben is a member of the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology and also the Society of Consulting Psychology, Division 13, where I have met Ben numerous times in the past. Also APA, American Psychological Association.

Before graduate school and in between his BA and going back to graduate school, he worked at the Republic National Bank in New York for 3 years. First, as a management trainee and then as an assistant to the CEO.

After graduate school, he was also the Director of Human Resources at before founding Dattner Consulting. He’s not only worked at a university, he’s got real-world experience.

Ben, welcome to the show.

Dr. Ben Dattner: Thank you. Good to be with you both.

Dr. Relly Nadler: We always like to start off with getting a little bit of an idea of who has been most influential in your life in regards to leadership?

Dr. Ben Dattner: Well Richard Hackman was my undergraduate mentor and when I was a junior in college I took his course which met at 8:30 am in the morning because he wanted to be sure that everybody was super motivated to be there. For an undergraduate to get up at 8:30 in the morning was quite a feat. He really taught me about teams and about leadership and was a real inspiration to me throughout my career.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: It’s always gratifying to hear people talk about who they have been inspired by and you know Ben it’s obvious, there can be a lot of people talking about you because having just read the book once, and I usually read a book a couple of times, I have to tell you, your book is very, very, inspiring.

Let me ask you this question. When you work with clients, how do you introduce this concept? What is the main thrust of your work?

Dr. Ben Dattner: The main thrust of my work is that credit and blame and the dynamics of attribution is really the crucible of organizational behavior whether it’s for individuals, relationships, or teams, it really doesn’t matter.

When you look at the social psychology of the workplace, people’s focus is really about credit and blame. Who is getting credit and who is getting blamed. How people react to credit and blame from others. How they assign it to others, is really a key ingredient of individual leadership success, whether teams and organizations look forward and solve problems or really get mired and finger-pointing and politics.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Let’s dig into the foundation of the book. How did you get the idea of writing a book about credit and blame?

Dr. Ben Dattner: I had one client seven years ago whom I’ll call Dana, because I tell her story in the book, and she works at a hedge fund. At the time, she had a credit-stealing blame-casting boss. Dana came to see me on her own initiative. Usually I’m hired by companies and organizations to coach individuals or to work with teams, but in this case, she sponsored our work together, herself.

Over the course of working together for several months, credit and blame were really at the heart of what was going on there. She was an investment analyst and her boss was the portfolio manager. When Dana would make a recommendation, her boss would steal credit if the investment went up, but blame her for it if the investment went down.

As our work together progressed, I realized that her challenges and her opportunities were really quite universal in the workplace even though a hedge fund is unlike other workplaces, the basic issues of personality, trust, communication, and relationships were really quite universal.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: It’s funny how you make it so simple. One of the things that you write about in your book which I found quite enlightening and very humorous, was the Six Phases of a Project: enthusiasm, disillusionment, panic, search for the guilty, punishment of the innocent, and rewards for the uninvolved.  I thought that was fabulous.

Dr. Ben Dattner: As I wrote, I’ve studied many formal academic models of teams and team development, but I have yet to come across one that is as accurate and apropos as that one.

Dr. Relly Nadler: I think the other thing that you say, Ben, that is also interesting in your book; all three of us are writers and we have books, but we learn so much from our clients and in your book, you said how you saw that in someone’s cubicle.

Dr. Ben Dattner: Yes. A coworker at Republic National Bank.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Say a little more on this point: Why do credit and blame really matter and then that will lead us into why you think this topic is so timely now.

Dr. Ben Dattner: Credit and blame are really at the very heart of organizational psychology because they help determine whether we as individuals learn and grow in our careers or instead whether we may derail. At the team level, credit and blame determine whether teams take an open-minded approach to their challenges or, as is too often the case, succumb to the temptation to scapegoat and blame.

It even rolls up to entire organizations. Sometimes organizations have trust and cultures of trust and problem solving, but unfortunately, all too often, organizational cultures really involve so much waste of time and effort on dysfunctional finger pointing. Because I’m an organizational psychologist, I’ve noticed every time I’m working with a client or a client organization, credit and blame are really what everybody is focused on.

My role as a consultant and coach it helps individuals, teams, and organizations reconsider their understanding of credit and blame so that they can stop negative cycles and really create positive cycles of trust and collaboration.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Wouldn’t that be a great place to work, right? Unfortunately, Ben, you and I both know as does Relly from all of our experience as both executive coaches and academics to some degree, that getting credit and taking blame are the first things we learn how to do and how not to do in corporate America and also in our teaching realms. We know we’ll lose students if we don’t do the things that make people feel good about coming to class.

You were saying this professor that you had wanted to make sure he had dedicated students at 8:30 in the morning, so there is a lot of psychology around this.

Let me ask you this question. In your book, you write about the self-serving bias and the ultimate thing which we call attribution error. What are these things and how do they show up in organizations?

Dr. Ben Dattner: The self-serving bias is our tendency to take more credit upon ourselves and to cast blame upon others to see ourselves in a positive light. So, if we do well, for example on a test, it’s because we are talented. If our co-workers do well, it’s because it was an easy task. If we don’t do well, it’s because circumstance conspired against us. But if other people don’t do well it because they didn’t expend enough effort or because they haven’t sufficient talent.

When you look at success versus failure for ourselves versus others we really see the world through self-serving biases; through tinted lenses that make ourselves look more favorable and others look worse. This is really quite universal.

The ultimate attribution error is when we ascribe someone’s behavior or their intentions to their group membership instead of to their actual character or effort or talent. An example of this might be where we say everybody in accounting is lazy and everybody in marketing is talented because we work in marketing and they work in accounting. Therefore, whether it’s the same idea or a different idea, if somebody in marketing offers an idea we are going to say that’s really helpful and compelling, but if somebody in accounting offers it we are going to hold that to a different standard.

So, the ultimate attribution error is really analogous to the self-serving bias but it’s for our group rather than for ourselves.

Listen to the complete interview above.


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