When in doubt, go the easy route; blame it on the weak and vulnerable
Playing the Blame Grain
(George Orwell would be proud of this paragraph)
Some people cast blame about willy nilly like grain in a chook pen[i]. A lot of it simply doesn’t land where it belongs. Some lands in the water dish and swells out of all proportion. Some lands in the mud, the mud sticks rendering it quite distasteful. But worst of all, some lands on an innocent chicken’s shoulders and encourages other thoughtless and heartless chickens to peck on it. These poor chickens are left terrified and cowering in the corner never reaching their full potential and laying that coveted golden egg. This is no paltry issue and something must be pun done about it.
On the other side of the fence, it’s also very easy to fall into the victim role
Often it’s little more than standing your ground that stops a blame caster in their tracks. But the ability to stand your ground is dependent on many factors as simple as your name, rank and serial number. You may be young, non-confrontational by nature, new in a role or lacking experience. There may be a million other reasons why you don’t feel you can defend your position. If you’re able, don’t own it if it doesn’t belong to you. The exception of course is if you’re a leader. This is where great leadership shines through. Own your mistakes and that of your reports. When you can do that, you’re truly a leader.
Nothing changes, the personalities just get older and more clever
When I was a young pup, I was a naïve jackeroo in country NSW. I found myself working with a couple of old dogs that knew how to work the system. Just out of Agricultural college I had more energy than a border collie sheep dog. Like most young people I was occasionally broadsided by the behaviour of the bitter old weather worn, so-called, comrades in arms. As a young person, it’s really quite a revelation how twisted and venomous some people can be. I guess you imagine you’re finally amongst the grownups and the school yard rubbish is over. Well it’s a slap in the face when you discover it actually isn’t and that what’s happened is that many people have just become more proficient in the distasteful behaviours you thought were associated with teenage immaturity, hormones, and the desperate need for inclusion.
When goats escape, we need a scapegoat
But out of adversity often comes an amusing story, although it may take many years to form itself into an amusing shape and substance. One of my jobs, on the property where I worked, was to manage a herd of goats, 500 young ladies actually. Their 50 husbands all aptly named Bill, spent their vacation time on another smaller property that flanked a pine forest, a pine forest that spanned some 30 or 40kms.
Oh, don’t give me a home, where the wayward goats roam
Much to my dismay, one day I was informed that a gate had been left open and all the Bills had taken an impromptu vacation in the pine forest. I leapt on my horse and equipped with an arsenal of working dogs and enough food to last 2 hours, I headed out into the pine forest with not a hope in the coldest hell of finding them. Then, as if by magic, the recent rains that had muddied the orange clay roads, brought forth fresh tracks. Unlike sheep, goats run in a tight group, and these chaps all decided they would run along the road as far as they could before stopping to eat. I wondered at my sense of being at one with the earth as I morphed into an indigenous tracker. I’d like to say it took days of touching the turf, testing the temperature of goat droppings and looking wistfully into the setting sun under a broad brimmed hat, but alas I found them after 20 or 30 minutes of riding out into the forest.
When the dogs and I came upon the escapees, we winked and nodded at each other, wiped our collective brows, and turned those rascals for home. Off took the goats, back on the track at a cracking pace with the dogs and I in hot pursuit. It wasn’t long before one wily old goat decided he’d had enough and he stopped and climbed on the trunk of a large fallen tree in defiance. The other goats disappeared into the distance and I was desperate. I edged the horse over to the tree and surrounded the culprit with the trusty hounds. Exhausted, the goat relented and stood still, allowing me to grab him by the horns and drag him onto the horse and over the saddle in front of me.
By now, his brethren were long gone and I was terrified they may have deviated off the track and into the pine forest. So I set off, first at an uncomfortable trot and not long after at a canter. One hand on the reins and one on the goat, it was becoming increasingly difficult to hold the slippery little sucker on his first ever horse ride. Eventually I had him by one hind leg off the side of the horse. My arm was acting like a bungee cord with every rise and fall of the horses gait and he was getting a bird’s eye view of the track whizzing by. In the end, I had to make a defining decision, a decision that neither the goat nor I was entirely happy about. I gave preference to catching the main herd. His bungee cord released, he executed a half flip with pike. Ok, ok, you’re getting mad at me now. I can honestly say, miraculous as it may be, that this goat made it home eventually, not even wearing a neck brace, but definitely not sold on a career as a jockey. I found the herd and took them home, personally satisfied that I was a bushman in the finest tradition.
The next day, the boss rang me and said. “You left the gate open again”. I didn’t. I hadn’t the first time. He insisted I did and wouldn’t hear otherwise. I was definitely set up on this occasion. All of the goats were gone again, except perhaps one that opted to stay home, a little tainted by the previous days adventure. Back I went and brought them home again.
A series of incidents, youthful impetuosity, and a little shell-shocked by a previous boss I wrote about in one of my earlier posts, I decided enough was enough. The bad guys had won. I left. I decided to burn my bridges and threw a lit match over my shoulder, in the form of a verbal spray as I parted. It went out of course, without catching hold. Ah well, made me feel ok for 24 hours. I remember telling the boss at the time that he had no idea what was going on out on his properties. Looking back, well, I was right.
It’s human nature that we instinctively seek to cast blame for failures immediately upon whoever we can as quickly as possible. Failure, mistakes and problems at work are hot potatoes that are best generously shared. It’s such a relief to keep your reputation intact, to maintain your power. On many occasions in your career and in your personal life there will be situations where your first instinct is to look at others and cast the blame. It takes a great deal of maturity to look at yourself when making that first assessment of the cause of a failure. It’s not easy. It’s not my first instinct, I openly admit that. I do know however, that’s what you should do.
The impact of a blame culture
As a leader, or even just as a colleague, you do untold damage casting blame about. It creates a culture of fear. It disengages employees involved directly and indirectly. It contributes to unwanted attrition. It stifles creativity and innovation, the very nature or which require risk taking and can be laced with failure from which employees need to bounce back. They need resilience. Real leaders are not insecure and they have the guts to own their own mistakes and to own those of their teams.
A great example from the Harvard Business Review
“The question occurred to me: How much of my colleagues’ performance problem did I actually own?
Call it an epiphany, but that question inspired me to start scribbling. Soon I had a long list of things I could and should have done differently, all the way from resource allocation and long-term capability building to my engagement in the immediate crisis. I want to be clear that this was not an exercise in self-loathing or defeatism; it was an authentic, honest, and complete analysis of how I had failed to do my part.
The following Monday, when the three of us met to review where we stood, I arrived with a different attitude. I started the meeting by describing, calmly and with total candor, how decisions I had made in the past had landed us where we were, and what I was prepared to change. In short, I owned the problem. We then decided together how we would not only manage the immediate situation but also change capabilities, priorities, and processes to strengthen the company in the long run.
The question occurred to me: How much of my colleagues’ performance problem did I actually own?
I will admit that one reason my new approach allowed us to make better progress was that it stunned my colleagues. Whatever defensiveness they were feeling was swept away. But just as important, reviewing how I had helped create the problem gave me more clarity and conviction about what I could fairly ask of them.
Now when issues arise at work—or in personal relationships, for that matter—I know it is fundamental for me to look deeply and objectively at my own contribution to them before expecting others to change and improve. In case I need a reminder, there is a picture of my two colleagues on my office wall, showing what a good team looks like. At the end of the crisis, we and our company emerged better than ever—and that’s something we owned, too.” Blame Me, by Kevin Sharer HBR
An exercise for next time you’re about to cast some blame.
Imagine describing the situation, a failure or a mistake, to an independent person. Not a friend, a colleague or family member. What would they think? Are you casting blame without real consideration? Would you be comfortable to say you really know what went wrong? Have you taken a moment to examine the facts? What’s the root cause of the failure? Ok, you know what caused the failure, but then what caused the cause?
Mary rushed her work and made a mistake. Why did she rush? She was under pressure. Why was she under pressure? She had a very tight deadline. Why the tight deadline? You needed her to start a new project. Why didn’t she tell you she couldn’t do the work that quickly without risking the integrity of the outcome? Then you could have helped, right? You don’t have the sort of relationship required for her to speak openly, honestly and with confidence. That’s not your fault, she is really quiet. If she would just speak up. Hang on, you know she is quiet and doesn’t speak up. You need to communicate and ask the questions and create a safe environment for communication.
Ok, the examples quite simple I know. But it’s that sort of non-reactive assessment that takes away the need to blame and creates a much more open and genuine environment conducive to employee engagement. Learning not to react before thinking is an incredibly important leadership and life skill we all need. For some of us it takes hard work and practice.
Have a great week at work and if none of what you’ve just read helps in any way, then don’t blame me.
[i] Chicken or fowl depending on where you live.