Monday, November 24, 2008

The Wheels on the Bus go...

When the economy turns sour, you need to spend extra time looking over your shoulder because that's when people are more prone to blame someone else for problems they have caused, according to a management professor who studies behavior in the workplace.

"We're pretty obsessed with assigning blame in our culture. In the workplace, there usually are more challenges and failures during tough economic times, and because of self-serving attitudes, it's common to want to make sure the blame is on someone else," says Paul Harvey, assistant professor of management at the University of New Hampshire.

"It's a common human tendency for people to convince themselves that they are the cause of the good things but try to assign blame to others when things go wrong," Harvey says. "It's an ego defense mechanism that helps people feel good about themselves."

The history of accounting includes plenty of scapegoating. "For example, Enron fired Arthur Andersen in an apparent attempt to redirect at least some of the blame and criticism being targeted at Enron,” Harvey says. “Not to say Arthur Andersen did nothing wrong, but if the information the auditor receives from the company is flawed, it’s a bit of a stretch to say that the auditor shares in the blame for creating that information. Yes, Arthur Andersen should have been able to catch the deceptive numbers and their subsequent shredding of documents to cover their tracks didn't help their case, but to try to shift blame for lies that originated within Enron is a pretty clear (and fairly desperate) attempt at scapegoating.”

Being personally targeted as a scapegoat can be devastating, whether or not the allegations are true. If you're the target, trying to explain the real cause of and responsibility for the problem may appear as desperate excuses or, ironically, attempts to blame someone else.

And if the person throwing you under the bus happens to be your boss, the situation becomes even more complicated. "When that happens people usually have to stand their ground and hope that, over time, the facts help to vindicate them," Harvey says.

According to the professor, the better approach is to avoid being made a scapegoat by proactively making sure everyone knows your responsibilities and structural limitations beforehand when you see a problem developing.

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