The Blame Game

It is so easy to blame others, there can be something quite addictive about it, and in teams we can all happily point the blame at managers, others departments, founders, clients.

When I coach teams, blame often comes up in conversation - our department is always the last to know; we’re just seen as a support function they don’t include us; he doesn’t stick up for us in strategy meetings; she doesn’t listen, she’ll never change...


Gottman referred to them as the 'Four Horsemen’, toxins he called criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. He used the horsemen metaphor to describe communication styles that, according to his research, could predict the end of a relationship. He was specifically looking at marriages, but his concepts have been shown to relate to teams.

We all blame others, we all have a favourite horseman, what’s yours?!

When teams start to notice what blame they are carrying, to recognise its impact, it can be a gamechanger, and many find comfort in hearing that other teams are also learning how to manage blame when it shows up. Horsemen behaviours are often rooted in a sense of powerlessness, when individuals and teams don’t feel heard, appreciated or recognised.

I remember being in a team rife with blame, all aimed at the director, everything was their fault! Looking back we just felt powerless, unappreciated and not heard. Just to have been able to voice that as a team would have been a relief, and to have been given support to notice and take responsibility for the blame we were generating. I hope we would have chosen to behave differently, worked out an action plan together. Instead there was gossip, misunderstanding and eventually people started to leave, it was very stressful, and I’m not sure we got a lot of work done.

Conflict happens, and when it does there is information there for the team, and they need to decide what to do with that, how to manage it. It’s not about all being friends, rather taking responsibility for how you want to work together. If you want to take responsibility for the blame.

What’s your horseman? Mine (I hope not too often) would be defensiveness, which never gets you what you want, in fact it often leads to stonewalling, hoping that ignoring the situation or the person will make it all go away. Not a great strategy!

You have to first notice the horse you’re on, and then make a choice to come off it. As difficult as that may seem, there are antidotes to the toxins. They take practice, and teams who work through this will testify that having the knowledge that these horsemen exist is hugely powerful.

It’s interesting that Gottman’s research was with married couples, and yet looking at the amount of time we spend with our colleagues it’s no surprise that his findings also relate to teams. Sometimes it can feel like a marriage!

For more on Gottman’s work see his website

Sally Powell MA PCC is a Leadership Coach and Trainer, and co-founder of Art User. Sally is passionate about helping others to realise their full potential, and knows the power that amazing conversations can have on unlocking new perspectives and transforming lives.

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