For geeks, avoiding blame is a silent career killer


There's a silent killer attacking the careers of technical people. It runs rampant through organizations, destroying the future job prospects of even the most talented geeks. They end up sidelined, passed over for promotions or laid off. Sadly, this killer can lead us to engage in some self-destructive, dysfunctional behaviors.

I'm talking about geeks' all-too-common compulsion to avoid being blamed for anything. (And if the thought "I would never do that" just passed through your mind, you are doing it without even being aware of it.)

Nearly every geek has some degree of this tendency. It's just part of our DNA, inextricably intertwined with the reasons we chose technical work in the first place. We love problem-solving and finding the right answer. Conversely, we hate being wrong.

The desire to avoid blame shows up at work in three distinct behaviors, none of them helpful.

Being defensive. When things go wrong and you say something like, "Hey, it's not my fault," you send a number of negative messages all at once. You sound petulant and immature, like a kid who just knocked over a lamp. And you seem more concerned with yourself than the work or other people. Rather than discussing how to make things better, you're focused on your image -- without realizing what a poor image this conveys.

Blaming others. Another dysfunctional response to things going wrong is to blame other people. "Hey, Sandy chose that platform, so don't blame me." Here again, you sound immature and self-centered. But this time it's worse. You also sound disloyal to your colleagues.

Preventing blame. The most subtle, pervasive and insidious form of avoiding blame happens long before things go wrong. Here, you position yourself to be immune to blame, thus demonstrating that avoidance is a primary concern even when nothing has gone wrong. This is usually expressed through "CYA" behaviors like officiousness, unnecessarily rigid adherence to process or preemptive defensiveness. You'll say things like "Don't blame me when this falls apart" or "I'll be happy to change the color of that button after you submit a change order."

Although this version usually doesn't give people the impression that you're immature, it does radiate self-centeredness. And worse, it not only gives the impression that you are more concerned with protecting yourself than doing good work, it also ensures that the impression is accurate. If you focus your creative energy on avoiding blame, you have less creativity to focus on your work.

So how do you get out of this trap? The first step is to recognize that you're in it. This can be hard, since blaming yourself can be the most painful blame of all.

Once you've accepted that you engage in blame avoidance, you can do two things to break the habit. First, you can recognize the impulse and choose a different response. Second, you can ask colleagues to privately point it out. Just telling them that you want to work on it goes a long way.

No amount of technical talent can overcome the career damage of blame avoidance. If it's infected your career, you owe it to yourself and your colleagues to address it right away.

Paul Glen, CEO of Leading Geeks, is devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking.

This story, "For geeks, avoiding blame is a silent career killer" was originally published by Computerworld.

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