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Giving Credit and Blame at Work


I responded this week to a New York Times reporter working on a story for the Career Couch column in the Sunday business section.  She was looking for advice on “how best to give credit and assign blame at work.” More specifically she wanted to get expert advice on “the most politically savvy way to approach it.”  My response follows…

You are on to a very important issue.  Let me start with blame…

Every employee comes to work every day with discretionary effort that they can only volunteer to their employer.  Getting that discretionary effort can make an enormous difference to the bottom line – so-called highly engaged employees can be up to 300% more productive than their “workplace dead” counterparts.  What does this have to do with blame?  If the workplace culture is punitive around making mistakes it corrodes engagement.  Highly engaged employees are proactive problem solvers so they often charge ahead to fix what they see as broken – and sometimes they don’t get it quite right.  If they are “blamed” for a making a mistake, without some validation around the generally positive value of taking personal initiative, then the engagement and the initiative it engenders is robbed of the oxygen it needs to survive.  In short, a blaming workplace culture chokes the very behaviors most CEO’s long for – engagement, accountability, personal initiative, proactivity.

On giving credit…

Every human being, and therefore every worker, wakes up every day in search of validation (we’re hardwired that way) and they rarely get enough at home or at work.  Giving credit, one form of validating an employee’s performance, is not just a positive tactical element of building stronger teams – it actually meets a hardwired need at a neurological level that increases our ability to engage and connect at a higher level of engagement.  It is an essential and basic tool to enable workers to perform at their peak ability.  It is far more effective than the traditional carrots management uses such as salary, benefits and other financial  rewards.

I find that many CEO’s (I work with 30-70 CEO’s across North America every month on this issue) view much of what is needed to get employees more engaged in their work as “coddling” them. As long as that mindset governs the workplace culture we will remain stuck in the management theories lingering from the industrial revolution that “manage” robots on the assembly line instead of allowing employees to find purpose and meaning in what they do at work so they will volunteer all that discretionary talent and effort they hold within. Most of the CEO’s I work with promise to go back and work on better, more frequent recognition programs.

BEST PRACTICE — Giving credit — as just one way to validate employees — is far more valuable than a pat-on-the-back.  It leaves a lasting impression that opens up engagement.  Blame has little positive value in the workplace in the common understanding of its use — but a focus on accountability can reap rich rewards.

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2 Responses to “Giving Credit and Blame at Work”

  1. Eric Palmaer Says:

    Great insight Don. I am wondering if you have the source for the “up to 300% more productive” stat…is it your experience, a research study etc.?

  2. drheem Says:


    This stat is based on a number of studies (Gallup & others) that indicate an actively disengaged employee (on average) delivers about a half days work for a full day’s pay and the actively engaged employee typically delivers 1 and a half days work for the same pay. This is essentially a comparison of the two extremes (either side) of the standard bell curve resulting from our High Performance Culture Assessment (HPCA) tool we use to measure engagement in organizations. Hope this helps.

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Don Rheem was one of the best presenters any of us had ever encountered.

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