Responding to blame


How can we best use our freedom to make choices in context of responding to blame?

How can we best use our freedom to make choices in context of responding to blame?

In Part 1 of this three-part essay, we considered the definition and origin of blame. In part 2, we considered our response to errors made by others. Now in the last part of this essay, we will summarize how we can choose our responses when others blame us.

(This essay is based on my commentary published in the Nov. 1, 2000, issue of JAVMA titled, "Responding to blame by blamectomy and blamotomy," Vol. 217, pages 1295-1299).

Have you ever been blamed for problems associated with your work? Perhaps a client blamed you because of unmet expectations regarding the medical care of one of your patients. Perhaps finger-pointing from a colleague occurred in association with referral of a patient. Or perhaps the hospital director expressed frustration to you about a drop in the hospital's income attributed to the fees you have been charging clients. Whether you were responsible for these problems, have you ever responded defensively by saying, "It's not my fault; don't blame me!"? Did your defensive response make the situation better or worse? How might we more positively respond when we are on the receiving end of blame?

The answer is to make wise choices. One choice is to perform a blamotomy? What is a blamotomy? The Greek suffix "otomy" means "to cut into," for example, a cystotomy to remove bladder stones. Recall, we all suffer from varying degrees of blamosis and blamomas that have multiple causes. The term blamotomy symbolizes our desire to "cut into" or diagnose the underlying causes of errors for which we are to blame so as to eliminate them and prevent them from recurring.

How can we perform a blamotomy? Please consider the following 10 key steps:

1) We should accept responsibility and accountability for our choices and actions. If we accept credit for successes in our lives, why shouldn't we be willing to accept responsibility for our mistakes?

2) Be truthful. Why? What is your response when you learn that others have been untruthful to you? Isn't it true that whatever they say thereafter may be suspected as false, however true it may be? Our response to criticism of our mistakes should be governed by the desire to be honest.

3) Be humble. Why? Because, humility will help us admit a mistake and apologize to others for it. Isn't it true that poor choices get us into trouble, while egotistical pride often keeps us there? Being humble is not synonymous with being weak. It takes great strength to be humble when under provocation. Humility is especially required for a person in a position of authority to apologize to those who are responsible to her/him. A humble apology often will restore peace.

4) Avoid defensively justifying errors to others in order to save face. Trying to save face does not change the facts. In fact, in trying to deceive others, we may succeed in deceiving ourselves. Making the choice to save face usually results in the situation becoming worse. Why? Because saving face is based on an ethically faulty premise. It assumes that a person's reputation is of paramount importance at any cost, even the cost of our relationship with others. That premise is not correct; we must earn a good reputation!

5) We should avoid misrepresenting ourselves by intentionally covering up or hiding mistakes. Why? Because, as exemplified by the Watergate scandal involving President Nixon, when our errors are exposed, our choice to cover them reveals our intent. In addition, cover-ups consume a great deal of energy. Aren't we more likely to receive a just response if we openly admit a fault and shoulder the blame, than if we try to get out from under it?

6) Avoid shifting the blame for our errors to others. This choice to blame others for our errors is clearly selfish and dishonest. Once we fabricate the truth, we may find ourselves telling additional lies to cover lies. On the other hand, by admitting our errors and accepting responsibility for them, right-thinking people will usually respect our honesty.

7) Avoid blaming an innocent messenger obliged to bring us the message about our errors. Wise King Solomon stated, "Do not hurry to become offended, because the taking of offense rests in the bosom of foolish ones" (Ecclesiastes 7:9).

Although we have no direct control over the content of the message delivered by a third party, we do have direct control over how we respond to it. If we feel that we are being unfairly blamed, we should concentrate on the principle that the best defense against misrepresentation is fine conduct.

8) We should learn from our mistakes. When we are on the receiving end of blame and criticism, even if we think it is unfair, we must train ourselves to rise above all that is petty, and to accept and use what is true and worthwhile. Those who learn from criticism are sometimes wiser than those who give it. We must be big enough to admit our mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them.

9) For the sake of peace and unity, it may at times be advisable for us to shoulder blame for something we did not do, so long as no great issue or ethical or moral principle is involved. Isn't it better to endure wrong than to do wrong? In context of personal relationships, some things are more important than proving who is right and who is wrong.

So far we have considered nine steps that will constructively help us deal with our own faults. There is a common theme in all nine steps. Please review the following summary with the objective of finding it.

  • We should be responsible and accountable for our choices.

  • We should be truthful.

  • We should be humble, and not puffed up with self pride.

  • We should try to avoid being defensive.

  • We should avoid cover-ups.

  • We shouldn't blame the messenger for the message.

  • We should not shift blame for our own mistakes onto someone else.

  • We should try to learn from our mistakes.

  • To promote unity, we should consider shouldering the blame for the mistakes of others, provided an ethical or moral principle is not compromised.

Did you recognize the common theme in all nine of these steps? Again, it is the Golden Rule. The 10th step in performing a blamotomy is a direct application of the Golden Rule. To paraphrase, recognize and accept accountability for your errors as you want others to recognize and accept accountability for theirs.


Between stimulus and response is a space. In this space lies our freedom to choose our response. Knowledge of the underlying causes of blame, self-awareness of our freedom to choose not to blame others, and the desire to constructively respond to being blamed by others are key components in controlling blamosis and blamomas. But having knowledge of these principles is not enough. We must put them into practice. With timely and consistent application of blamectomies and blamotomies designed in harmony with the time-tested principles of the Golden Rule, the frustration, loss of precious energy, distrust and disunity caused by the blame game will be replaced with enthusiasm, accomplishment, appreciation, trust and unity.

Carl A. Osborne, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM

Dr. Osborne, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, is professor of medicine in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Minnesota.

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