Finger pointing – how blaming others prevents effective solutions to collective problems

Collective problems in organisations are often notoriously hard to fix. When people feel they’re not doing anything wrong themselves, finger pointing at others is all too easy. But it doesn’t help. Even when it feels justified. Especially when it feels justified.

How often have you been trying to solve a problem that affects multiple departments, teams or individuals and heard someone say “don’t blame me/us” or “it’s not my/our fault”?


This kind of finger pointing occurs in two separate scenarios.

  1. there is compelling, explicit, incontrovertible evidence that another party has done something (or failed to do something) that is clearly and wholly responsible for the collective problem;
  2. one or more departments, teams or individuals is/are convinced that “I/we have done nothing wrong”, assumes that the fault must lie with others, and picks a presumed guilty party based on circumstantial, flimsy or wholly non-existent ‘evidence’.

The first scenario is relatively simple to resolve. It may require a degree of tact, but the evidence will largely speak for itself.

The second scenario is much more challenging. That’s because even though the logic that “I/we did nothing wrong, therefore someone else must have” is flawed, it is highly compelling.

Collective problems in organisations are invariably caused by unintentional misalignments due to seeing-being traps. Some of these misalignments lead to the braking friction that slows them down and reduces performance. (My senior executive’s 20-minute video guide describes these phenomena and how to address them in more detail. You can get FREE access here.).

Here’s an example of such traps in an organisation affected by braking friction on a critical international project.

Finger pointing puts the brakes on in a critical international project

Today we’re used to China being a global economic force, but this wasn’t always so.

In the late 1990’s a global consumer goods company hired me to help them get the brakes off. One of their main product lines was under threat from Asian competitors.Finger pointing - project plan

In response, they started a crash programme to develop a new, more competitive product. The project team needed help to reduce the time to market launch.

One of the first people I met was the Dutch Project Manager responsible for developing the new product. His office was at the company’s main product development centre in Western Europe, with manufacturing and marketing located in China.

The Product Manager asserted that the inability to reduce time to market was nothing to do with him and his local design team. Finger pointing towards his marketing and manufacturing colleagues, his most memorable sound bite was that “the Chinese are thirty years behind the West”.

At a project progress meeting in China a few weeks later, he rejected the Chinese Production Manager’s request to eliminate a two week shipping delay from the programme. The Project Manager said that this would add $10,000 in air freight costs in justifying his refusal.

I asked the Production Manager how much revenue the organisation would lose due to a two week delay in production start.

This was the era before smart phones, when very few people even had PDA’s. Silence fell as the Production Manager pulled a handheld computer from his pocket and tapped in a few figures to the business model he’d programmed in.

Finger pointing - Chinese PDAThe Project Manager was gobsmacked when his colleague said that two weeks delay would cost the organisation over $3,000,000…

Finger pointing prevents us seeing other people’s creative solutions to our shared problems

Before experiencing this ‘wake-up’ moment the Project Manager believed, based on no real evidence, that the problem lay with his Chinese colleagues.

By escaping his seeing-being trap he could now see, for the first time, that:

  • his $10,000 “saving” came at a cost of $3,000,000;
  • this cost was well known and understood by his better informed (and equipped) Chinese colleague;
  • ‘the Chinese’ ‘were not ‘thirty years behind the West’;
  • his colleagues in marketing and manufacturing could probably help him to eliminate even more braking friction from the project.

When he returned to Europe at the end of a highly productive week, the Project Manager took three new things with him:

  1. a project plan with a significantly reduced time to market worth more than $10,000,000 in additional revenues;
  2. his very own shiny new PDA – that the local Production Manager had personally taken him out to buy;
  3. a deeper appreciation of his Chinese colleagues as members of a single international team.

Key questions about finger pointing in your organisation

Where do people in one part of your organisation see colleagues in another part as “a long way behind our level of competence”?

Whose ways of seeing and being cause them to indulge in the finger pointing that most holds your organisation back?

Which specific seeing-being traps must your organisation escape to eliminate braking friction and raise performance to the levels you need?

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