The Blame Bias


A survey was done on victims in mining and factory accidents in Ghana.

When asking the people who worked and were familiar with the victims, only 6 percent blamed the victim for the accident. When asking people who were not directly familiar with the victim, 44 percent blamed the victim for the accident.

The authors of “Primed to Perform,” Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor, explained through the above study that “the more removed we are from someone, the more likely we are to blame them.”

So what? Well, take for instance the above example. A manager of the mine or factory where the accident happened might have a bias to blame the victim. Thus, the manager might then require workers to take more training courses. The manager would look to fix the people – because he or she blamed the worker – versus the systems, where the cause of the accident might actually be.

This is what the authors call the blame bias. “The blame bias affects the way we run organizations. Every leader has limited time to spend on improving performance. Because the blame bias causes us to blame the player, not the game, we focus on prodding the player, not changing the game. The easiest way to prod is through indirect motivators,” wrote the authors.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But it happens everywhere and in every situation. Think about your gym for a moment:

Your Coach keeps receiving bad feedback from a few members. They say she can’t teach any gymnastic skills. You’re shocked, knowing she has helped you with your muscle-ups and handstand walks more than once. Looking deeper into the issue, you realize your Coach’s time is getting eaten up in the lifting portion. Once she reaches the skill work part of the program, she has little time left.

At first you blame her lack of organization. But then you realize she’s never had this problem before. So you look deeper and it seems every Coach is having this issue. And that’s when you figure out that you’ve been programming too much into one hour classes. Having been removed from coaching for about six months, you didn’t notice your WODs kept getting longer and near impossible to teach within a 60-minute period. And to think: you almost fired the Coach when the problem was actually your fault because of a little thing called the blame bias.

So, how can you identify the blame bias in your business? The authors offered four steps:

  1. Remember: Assume positive intent and realize the person probably means well, reminding you that it may be, well, you.
  2. Explain: Come up with five scenarios in your mind that could explain the staff person’s behavior that does not assume a problem with the person.
  3. Ask: State your observation in a way that shows you are assuming they have good intent, but also gets to the root of the question – why?
  4. Plan: Figure out the true cause of the issue and make a plan of attack.

Heather is the editor for Box Pro Magazine. Contact her at