The Booby Prize - aka The Blame Game


One of the most memorable leadership lessons that I’ve ever learned was picked up poolside. When I was in my twenties, there were many sunny Southern California weekends where I lounged by a pool with my great friend Shanah.  The pool at my apartment was always crowded, so much of the time we’d drive out to The “oh my gawd” Valley and hang by her parents' pool.  I loved catching rays, to be sure, but mostly I enjoyed the company.  Not only did I adore Shanah, I loved her incredibly strong Irish mother, Maggie, and her ever-amusing stepfather, Stanley.

It’s helpful know that Stanley was a former Navy Admiral.  He had leadership and command experience oozing from his pores. When he spoke, even if you were a “civilian” relaxing by his pool, you best listen.  Stanley was a bit of a “salty” guy – in a way that I imagine many Navy guys are – and he was constantly using expressions that were shorthand for some larger point.  He’d say things like:

  • "What’s the G4?"  (Translation:  What’s the logistical information?  It’s like asking for the 411.)
  • "Maintain course and speed."  (Translation: Keep it up!  Usually meant as a compliment.)
  • "Give it a wide berth."   (Translation: Don’t go there.  This was always a warning against stupid decisions.)

I could tell you stories for days, but the one that made a particular impression on me was when Stanley called me out for playing “The Blame Game.”  I remember that I was doing the talking and I was probably complaining about either my job or my boyfriend.  Odds are that I was gripping about why they were responsible for my unhappiness, why I was such the victim, or some other sort of "why me?" scenario. I don’t recollect the particulars of the story, but I distinctly recall Stanley taking a puff on his cigar and saying to me,

“Joy, you know that ‘why’ is the booby prize.”

Um.  OK.

Not sure that I was tracking with him, but it sure sounded like a profound statement.

What did that mean?  I was aware that the expression “booby prize” was a joke award usually given to someone who comes in last, but I didn’t catch how that related to the question “why?”

Most of the time I’d just smile at Stanley and then ask Shanah for a translation later, but not this day.  This time I asked Stanley directly: what was he getting at?   As expected, Stanley didn’t add a ton of context, but he gave me enough words that I could get his point.  He chose his reply carefully.

“Are you working on a solution or are you trying to blame someone for your problems? You need to acknowledge the problem, then move on.  Don’t ask ‘why?’ Instead, ask ‘what’s next?’ Figuring out the 'why' is usually the booby prize.”

Feeling only a little brave, I mustered the courage to ask one follow-up question. Don’t you need to know the “why” to get to a solution?  Again, I was given a few loaded statements.

“If you have to find out ‘why’ so that you don’t repeat the problem,  fine.  But you should get ‘in and out’ and keep your focus on the solution – on what’s next, not on why.”

Aaaaand scene...(as they say in the movies.)

A couple of decades have gone by since that conversation, yet I can’t tell you how often the “ 'why’ is the booby prize” statement floats through my head.  I think about it when I blame others for mistakes. (Am I expecting perfection?)  It comes to mind when I am frustrated that circumstances don’t go my way. (Do I think the world has to be organized around me?)  I'm routinely surprised by how often I want to blame someone or something rather than focusing on “what’s next” and thinking about the solution.

So much energy can be put into the questioning of "why" life gets hard (and whom to blame).  But focusing on figuring out where to place the blame takes all the energy away from finding a solution; it's harder to focus on taking the next step to get up, dust off, and move on.

What about you?  When you experience trouble, do you relish the idea of finding someone or something to blame?  Is it important for you to find the “cause” or “explanation” for every bump and bruise that you experience in life?  And on those days when you actually find the cause, does it really even help solve the problem?  (I say seldom so.)  On the days when the "why" doesn't come easy, do you resort to pointing the finger at some person who you concluded was to blame?

The blame dynamic happens everywhere, especially in our companies and organizations.  Non-existent or faulty systems produce faulty results and everyone stands around and blames ... while nobody works on the way out of the mess.  The sales don’t come in and people want to find someone to blame.  Have you ever hear any of these kinds of blaming statements and the (potential) next steps that they ignore?

  • BLAME: We didn’t get to bid on the job because the clients didn’t give us a shot. NEXT STEP: How can we market our services better next time?
  • BLAME: The deals aren’t coming in because of the economy. NEXT STEP: How can our product must be altered to be viable in the demands of this current economic market?
  • BLAME: We can’t get the venture started because those darn competitors got “lucky” and got to the market first. NEXT STEP: How can we innovate ahead of the competition?
  • BLAME: The product is late to market because the shipping department is a mess. NEXT STEP: How can we adjust  our system that is perfectly designed to produce the results we are currently experiencing?

Or perhaps you’ve seen the blame spiral:  Marketing blames R&D for making them promote a product that isn’t excellent; sales blames marketing for lack of creativity;  leadership blames everyone. Everything goes down the spiral and nothing every improves...partly because everyone is burning all their energy blaming and not thinking up solutions.

Being solution-oriented means shifting the focus and looking for the “what’s next?” rather than wasting time on finding blame.  It means finding the line between a “why” that’s diagnostic and a “why” that’s looking to place blame.  Sometimes, the system that needs fixing. Sometimes,we need to ask different questions. Sometimes, our job is to  take responsibility for the mistake and move on.

When faced with a problem, ask yourself, “how can I move toward a solution?”

After all, no one wants the booby prize.