The project came in over budget. A deadline was missed. A critical piece of information was not incorporated into a client presentation. Things go wrong all the time. Naturally it’s important to talk about what went wrong so people can fix the mistake and make sure it’s not repeated. The problem is that talking about what went wrong tends to cause defensiveness. People generally engage in a dynamic of blame and counter-blame:

“You should have told me the deadline was today!”

“Well, you should have asked!”

“You’re never around, so I couldn’t ask.”

And so on.

So what’s the best strategy?

Discuss Contribution

Engage in a discussion of each person’s contributions to the predicament, rather than looking for one person to blame. Discussing contribution involves assuming that no single person caused a situation to go wrong, but that multiple people contributed to the problem. While some contributions may be more significant than others (it need not be assumed to be 50/50), by engaging in a discussion of each person’s contribution, it’s possible to reduce defensiveness and focus on remedying the situation, rather than escaping blame for it.

The key to this process is taking responsibility for your own contribution before asking others to take responsibility for theirs. For example, a manager talking with a direct report about a missed deadline might raise the issue like this:

“We missed this deadline, and obviously that’s the last thing anyone wanted. I want to talk about how this happened, so we can make sure it doesn’t happen again. One of the things I could have done differently is I could have been clearer about the deadline. If I had, we might have been ready sooner and not gotten into this situation. What are some things you might have done differently?”