Why blame and shame don't work for leaders

Blame and shame are ineffective in motivating desired behaviours and often actually backfire. Read more to learn how to avoid emotional reactions and better support employees.

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Blame and/or shame cause different reactions in different people. For some it can cause acts of defiance, for others it may be withdrawal or feeling badly about themselves. Some may lash out in anger or become defensive. Some end up constantly trying to please others to counter not feeling good enough.

In the heat of the moment, some leaders may ask aggressive questions like, “Are you stupid? What is the matter with you? Can’t any idiot could do that job?”. It may be out of frustration or they may honestly think it’s a way to motivate someone. If it’s positive performance that you’re looking for, rather than blame and shame as a motivator, consider a different approach – one that helps the employee articulate how they will reach the solution or objective rather than merely pointing out the problem.

It is human nature to react negatively to blame and shame, criticism, judgment or threats. In the workplace this could look like a lack of engagement or motivation. It could sound like whining, arguing or hostility. It could include the filing of a grievance or a complaint, or even an accusation or verbal attack against someone else.

If withdrawal, defensiveness or counterattack are the intended outcomes, blame and shame will help elicit these. However, if the desired outcome is a sincere attempt at a sustainable solution, try an approach that centers on getting Getting employee commitment for leaders – one that helps the employee develop a solution to any performance problems, without the need to blame or shame.

Instead of accusing, blaming or shaming, consider redirecting toward a solution using some of these approaches:

  • Ask: “How can we do this differently?”
  • State exactly what you need from them and ask, “How can I help you achieve this?”
  • Instead of defending any other person – just listen.
  • When you don’t agree with their perspective – comment on how you think they might feel without agreeing with why they feel that way. (e.g. “Everybody hates me.” – “It must be awful to feel that way.”)
  • After someone has vented or complained, ask:
    • What would you like to do about that?
    • How can we do that in a way that is healthy for you?
    • How can we change that to work better for you?
    • What is a solution that you think would make this better for everyone?
    • What would be helpful?
    • I hear your frustration. I want to help you move forward to a work situation that is at the very least not negative. What would that take?

Recognize that negative thinking may be a symptom of depression and of anxiety. Gently bringing the person back to focus on a solution can help them consider other possible thoughts or ideas. It may not be easy, but it can be successful.

Learn to Understand shame, Understand guilt, Understand anger and Understand fear.

Try our short eLearning module which includes key concepts related to this topic. You can share this with others or use it as part of a more in-depth learning program.

When an employee is blaming or shaming others

Another skill is to stop an employee from blaming or shaming others without humiliating them in the process. For example, if an employee feels that someone or everyone is out to get them, recognize the distress they’re experiencing. Rather than refuting their accusation, you may want to ask, “What can we do to make this right going forward?”.

Resist minimizing their feelings of hurt, betrayal or humiliation and instead help find a path that allows all parties to “save face” so all parties can walk away with a sense of dignity that allows them to interact in new ways. A process for Conflict response for leaders can help you with this.

When an employee demands an apology, you might ask the purpose of seeking an apology. A forced apology rarely makes things right and is not likely to be sincere. Suggest that instead, the solution might be an agreement about a change of behaviours going forward.

For example, if someone was gossiping about a worker, the way forward may be to first set the record straight about any untruths. Next would be a clear, written agreement to refrain from speaking in a derogatory way about others including the consequences if the agreement is broken. The difference between a forced apology and an agreement to change behaviours going forward can often mean the difference between a hostile truce and a new opportunity for healthier interactions.

Self-shame, self-blame

Some people internalize negative feelings such as shame and blame. For example, some who experience depression or anxiety-related illnesses, may feel ashamed or somehow responsible for their condition. This can lead to withdrawal that may lead to others ignoring or excluding them. This exclusion can reinforce feelings of inadequacy or isolation.

One approach is to help someone succeed at work. By doing this we are helping to reduce their feeling of not being good enough and we may also be helping others to see them as a successful contributor.


  • Blame and shame usually cause us to react emotionally
  • Redirect blaming or shaming talk (your own and others) toward solutions
  • Where possible neither agree nor disagree – just redirect
  • Resist minimizing or refuting feelings
  • Avoid he said/she said traps
  • Help all employees to be successful at work

For similar strategies, see Emotional intelligence for leaders.

Source: Baynton, M. Resolving Workplace Issues. (2011) Waterdown, Ontario. Self-Published

10-minute e-learning

Use this PDF as a reminder of the avoid blame and shame concepts.

An accessible version is also available.

For more eLearning topics, see Microlearning modules

Contributors include.articlesMary Ann Baynton

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