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No one likes a finger-pointer, even if they’re right in deflecting blame for something gone wrong onto someone else. When teams are working toward a common goal, blaming individuals for the failings of the group can sew inter-organizational divisions. The damaging effects of designating a scapegoat can be exacerbated when it’s the leader who points the finger of blame at someone other than themselves - the person ultimately responsible for team success or failure.

Deflecting Blame

Strong leaders carry the weight of success or failure of the team on their shoulders. Sure, a team cannot succeed unless all members contribute towards the achievement of their shared goals. The leader, though, is the lightning rod that attracts blame if the group’s endeavors fail. This is a heavy burden, but a burden that leaders agree to take on when they accept the role of leader. They are only human. Sometimes even leaders wish to hide from the persecuting eyes naysayers and adversaries.

One looks to shift blame onto others when something doesn’t go according to plan and the team suffers a setback. When disappointment is almost certain, someone may try to soften the blow to their ego and make the rejection of their efforts and talents more palatable. They can help minimize their suffering by directing attention to information that either shifts blame onto others or lessens the perceived severity of the transgression.[1] From an organizational perspective, the worse of these two offenses is shifting blame onto others. The blame must be placed somewhere. A self-serving leader may try to shift at least some of the blame off of themselves to balance what anthropologist Robert Trivers called the ‘responsibility equation.’ The leader may realize that they must bear some if not most of the blame, but if they can project some onto subordinates, other peer departments, or even their leadership, they can preserve some of their self-esteem and dignity, even though this is a fiction.[2]

Self-deceiving leaders don’t want to accept that they have a problem or an impairment in their abilities. To shield themselves from such damaging information, they can hide the information from their psyche. There are a number of ways a leader can compartmentalize such information to a place where they can ignore it, but ultimately, they do not want to acknowledge to themselves that they have a problem.[3] One way is to shift the blame for their shortcomings onto someone else, making it seem as though their problem is really someone else’s problem. By omitting detrimental information about their inadequacies that others may see, self-serving leaders can blur the application of blame and the perceptions of cause.[4] Hopefully, they feel, the blame will fall naturally on those who have achieved less in their careers.

A Matter of Emphasis

Deflecting blame away from oneself and onto others does not have to be a complete and full redirection. By shifting a portion of the blame onto others, the self-serving leader at the least downplays the negative aspects of the actions.[5] For a career-minded leader, avoiding blame for negative organizational outcomes by shifting responsibility onto teammates may save their job. University of Florida researchers James Shepperd, Wendi Malone, and Kate Sweeny study both social and health psychology. Their research includes how peoples’ expectations, attitudes, and response to bad news affect both their mental and physical health. They claimed that people often attribute success and failure in a self-serving manner. A team member, including the leader, will often overly attribute success to their skills and intelligence. Failure, however, could be blamed on bad luck, distraction, the incompetence of others, or other external factors outside the leader’s control.[6]

Most leaders will admit that the success or failure of a team or organization should rest on their shoulders. This takes the pressure off of their followers who grind away at their jobs to bring achievement to the organization. A self-serving leader, however, may not want to take all or any of the blame for a failure. Self-serving leaders may look for full or partial scapegoats to save themselves from embarrassment.


  • leaders may shift the blame for failure onto others to protect their ego and protect themselves from rejection

  • people often attribute success or failure in a self-serving manner; ascribing success to their skills and failure to circumstances or to less-competent constituents

[1] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [2] Trivers (2006) [3] Pienaar and Nel (2017) [4] Tenbrunsel and Messick (2004) [5] Gray and Densten (2007) [6] Shepperd et al. (2008)

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