Whether you call it TBG or the blame game, it has an insidious effect on your business, writes team leader Carl Medford. The longer it’s allowed to fester, the more damage blame will cause to team unity and morale, along with client confidence and trust.

What decisions and paths should the real estate industry be prioritizing? And how can you, whether managing a team or an entire company, bring those best lessons to bear where you work? In February, in advance of building an industry blueprint at Inman Disconnect, we’ll plumb the topic of leadership with Q&As with top industry leaders, contributions from esteemed Inman columnists and more.

In what appears to be a scene from a B-rate science fiction movie, North American skies suddenly seem to be littered with UFOs (unidentified floating objects). The only clarity that seems to be forthcoming is from the pilots of the fighters that get to shoot these objects out of the sky.

It’s a classic case of the blame game (TBG)

Both politics and governmental red tape seem mired in TBG. Everyone is always looking for any excuse to point their fingers at someone else as the cause of any given problem, publicly shifting the blame onto someone else in an effort to make themselves look good in the eyes of their constituents.

Ironically, this type of behavior begins very early in life: Ask any 2-year-old why something happened and their immediate response is to blame it on someone or something else — a sibling, pet or someone who magically appeared out of nowhere — even if the offender was caught red-handed in the act.

There are endless YouTube videos attesting to this fact: When the offender is a child, it can be funny and the damage minimal. When the exact same behavior comes from an adult, however, it is not a good look and the damage caused can be significant.

The definition of the blame game is “a situation in which different individuals or groups attempt to assign blame to each other for some problem or failure.” Whether the incident in question is happening at a governmental level or in a business, the effect is the same: One party attempts to pin the blame on another so that the “offending” party looks bad and those shifting the blame look good.

The blame game’s cost

At its core, someone playing the blame game is attempting to avoid responsibility and protect their own reputation. Unfortunately, this always comes with a significant price tag: tension, resentment and alienation.

For example, I recently ordered a vanity and, when it arrived, it appeared to be in good condition. The box had no dents or damage, and all looked well. Since we had ordered it well ahead of its installation date, I removed the external box to make sure everything was OK but left the inner wrapping intact to ensure it would not get damaged during the renovation process.

When it came time to install, we wheeled the vanity into place, removed the inner wrapping and discovered extensive damage. It appeared that it had been dropped upside down on one of its top corners. There were clear impact marks, and the entire interior frame was significantly cracked and warped.

Because it was going to be impossible to install it in that condition, we contacted the vendor. They immediately informed us that the window for reporting damage had passed, and they would do nothing. The shipping company also refused to do anything.

Our last chance was the manufacturer because it appeared that the damage had actually occurred before it had been packed for shipping. They too passed the buck and shifted the blame down the line. Even though the vendor had promised to obtain parts that had been broken, when it came time for them to step up, they went dark.

As the blame continued to circle, it became obvious that no one was going to do anything to rectify an expensive problem.

Because we own both a construction company and a staging company, we had purchased a number of items from this manufacturer before. As they refused to do anything proactive in this case, tension escalated to resentment with the result that alienation was the final conclusion. We made a decision to never buy from either the manufacturer or vendor again.

The irony is this: Had either the vendor or manufacturer stepped up and resolved the problem instead of playing the blame game, they would have gained raving fans for life.

Negative side effects of the blame game

TBG, when inculcated into the heart of an organization such as a real estate team, can have devastating results if it is allowed to progress unchallenged. Here are some of the negative effects:

1. It breeds a culture of negativity

If everyone is focusing on pushing blame elsewhere, the working environment quickly becomes negative and toxic.

2. It destroys creativity

No one is going to invest creative energy to push the company forward if there is a risk they will end up being a scapegoat if something goes wrong.

3. It sets up unhealthy competition between team members

In a healthy team environment, everyone helps each other climb the ladder of success. Although there may be healthy competition between team members, it’s always to spur each other on.

When TBG is allowed to run rampant, instead of helping each other, team members try to climb on top of each other at the cost of relationships and team spirit. Imagine if a football team had all of their receivers out competing with each other to catch the ball and then pointing fingers at each other when a pass went uncaught.

4. It garners isolation

When team members feel that their efforts will result in finger-pointing and blame, they isolate themselves from others or form cliques within the team to avoid potential hurt. Both activities destroy team spirit.

5. It wastes valuable resources

Instead of focusing together to come up with solutions that drive the team forward, infighting and finger-pointing take the focus off of problem-solving and waste tremendous amounts of time, energy, and other resources that should have been directed in positively resolving the situation.

6. It causes clients to lose faith and trust

Clients can smell discord a mile away, breeding a lack of confidence and potential loss of future clients. Most real estate teams rely on referrals to build their businesses: as in the case of our vanity — we will never again refer anyone to either of the companies involved.

7. It can result in a loss of key team members

There comes a point where team members wake up and realize that they can no longer endure working in a toxic environment, so they leave the ship and look for more healthy environments elsewhere.

Implement these key steps to avoid the blame game

Recognize that conflict is good

Without conflict, there can be no advance. Conflict is simply the recognition that there is an issue that needs to be resolved. In and of itself, conflict is neither good nor bad; how conflict is responded to is what makes all the difference.

Imagine what might happen if the applicable departments in the U.S. government stopped pointing fingers at each other and worked together in a non-confrontational way to resolve the UFO issue.

An excellent article by Anne Grady in Entrepreneur entitled “7 Steps for Keeping Conflict Healthy” outlines the following points:

Being assertive is OK

Engaging in healthy conflict begins with learning how to tread the line between “brutally honest” and “necessarily honest.” One is about putting people down while the other is about the free flow of information.

Rather than avoiding conflict, getting aggressive or becoming passive-aggressive, assertively communicate what you want and need from others. Clearly communicate your expectations and ensure understanding.

Get to the point

Being vague and avoiding the real topic creates confusion and a lack of clarity. Start the conversation with candid feedback and then use the rest of the conversation to work toward a mutually beneficial solution.

Pay attention to behavior

We all have different styles in which we communicate and we see the world through our own lenses and perspectives. Knowing the characteristics of different behavior styles and understanding how to modify your approach will significantly reduce conflict.

Replace ‘you’ language with ‘I’ language

This will avoid putting others on the defensive. Think about how you feel when someone begins with “You should” or “You always.” When someone begins a sentence with “I feel” or “I need,” you are generally more receptive.

Focus on the issue, not the person

Instead of saying, “You said you would finish this by today,” try “The project really needs to be finished today. What do we need to do to make that happen?” As soon as you make the discussion personal, you run the risk of turning conflict into combat. By keeping the conversation about the issue, you will reduce defensiveness.

Listen and paraphrase

When you listen and paraphrase what another person is telling you, it demonstrates that you really care about understanding them. Saying “What I hear you saying is ____. Is that correct?” is one of the simplest, most powerful communication tools to keep conflict productive. When people feel heard, they are less likely to be defensive.

Seek understanding, not agreement

Make an effort to try to understand the other person’s viewpoint, rather than convince them of yours. Share your desire to see the situation from their perspective. Get curious and ask questions. The goal should not be to avoid conflict but to embrace it, staying focused on productive outcomes.

Clearly define responsibilities

Personal accountability comes from having clearly defined roles and expectations on a team. It helps everyone stay in their lane so that finger-pointing and TBG are not necessary.

The key is for team members to own their responsibilities in a healthy way that is nurtured by a positive, nurturing team environment. In a healthy organization, people know their responsibilities and take ownership of any issues and any accompanying credit for successes.

Develop clear channels of communication

One thing that has been evident in the UFO fiasco is that key departments do not seem to be talking to each other. When it comes to national security, this is a critical oversight. In a team environment, a lack of clear communication can also lead to serious issues that will erode clarity and consumer confidence.

Understand that mistakes will happen

There is no question that mistakes will happen — it is not a matter of if, but when. It is always important to focus on the mistake as the issue, not the character of the person who goofed up.

If persistent mistakes occur, that is another issue that will need to be dealt with, but in most cases, mistakes are not that common. The person who made the mistake usually feels bad to begin with. There is no point in pouring salt on the wound by placing blame — especially in public.

In fact, mistakes should always be initially addressed in private and made public after steps to resolution are worked out. I’m not implying that you hide the issue. I am saying that you start with the person who made the mistake in private, gain their perspective, maintain their dignity and then go public as necessary to get help as required or announce a resolution.

Separate the individual from the action

As explained above, effort needs to be taken in a healthy team to separate a person’s identity from any mistake or failure that has happened. Chances are they are on your team because they have key qualities you admire and need. TBG erodes confidence as it attacks a person’s character instead of focusing on the actual issue.

Strategize solutions — and then act

Once the situation has been identified, work as a team to get it resolved as quickly and efficiently as possible without attaching any blame or finger-pointing. Some of our greatest triumphs as a team have come on the heels of a significant mistake. How the situation was handled not only gained the client’s confidence and trust but, in more than one case, resulted in a stellar testimonial.

Healthy teams recognize TBG for what it is — a blatant violation of relational integrity and a surefire way to destroy team unity. As a leader, if you see TBG in action, wait for an appropriate moment and then take the offender aside, affirm their value to the team and then clarify acceptable rules of engagement.

Do not delay. The longer TBG is allowed to fester, the more damage it will cause to team unity and morale along with client confidence and trust.

Carl Medford is the CEO of The Medford Team.

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