A Major Obstacle to Growing as a Leader: Blaming Others

May 22, 2014 5:55 pm Published by

Since I have worked as a psychologist and business coach over the past 20 years, I have had the opportunity to observe and interact with thousands of individuals and groups. Obviously, some people are more healthy and functional than others.

We all have problems, so the existence or experience of having difficulties in our lives is not the factor which discriminates between individuals who are doing well in their lives and those who are having ongoing, significant challenges.

There are individuals who (for whatever reason) live their lives according to a different set of rules — principles which really do not match the reality of the world  And, as a result, they wind up having significant and ongoing problems in their lives — relationally, financially, and in their careers.

There are many aspects that contribute to a slanted, distorted view of life, but the one I want to address today is:

The practice of blaming others for problems you are experiencing, rather than accepting responsibility for the choices you have made (which have lead to the results you are experiencing in your life.)

I see this time and time again — in individuals and families, in business, in government, in celebrities and athletes. Unfortunately, blaming others is a common course of action in our culture. But, regardless of how widespread “blaming” becomes, the practice will never lead to consistent, healthy results — whether it is in an individual’s life, the lifespan of a business, or over the course of history. In essence, when a person attempts to blame someone else (or some circumstance) for the negative results experienced, they are saying:  “It isn’t my fault. What happened was really out of my control.”

Blaming always starts with: “You…”, “They…”, “If only…”.  It only starts with an “I” statement when the “I” is followed with a “but…”, as in “Yes, I… but they…”

There are some truly great blamers out there. They are incredibly skilled verbally (and sometimes interpersonally). They can be fascinating to watch in action, as they run circles verbally around others, and (for the moment) look like the victor in attributing the responsibility for a negative result to someone. When you are in an interaction with them, you often feel “fogged”. You thought you knew the facts going in, but now you aren’t so sure. And the interaction all happened so quickly, your head is now spinning.

However, after a little time passes and the fog lifts, you realize that you have been “spun”. And the reality remains — at least part of the situation can be attributed to actions or choices the blamer made, although they are not willing to accept any responsibility at all.

In Jim Collins’ classic, Good to Great, he addresses the same principle with regards to successful businesses. He calls it the leadership’s ability to “confront the brutal facts”. This is the ability and willingness to accept reality for what it is and then deal with it, especially in circumstances leading to failure. In fact, one of Collins’ applications is the ability to “conduct autopsies without blame” — that is, looking at a bad situation, analyzing and seeing what went wrong, without the goal of attributing blame to someone. Rather, the purpose is to learn from the series of events and decisions that led to the failure and grow from the experience.

And Dr. Henry Cloud, in his outstanding book, Integrity: the courage to meet the demands of reality, clearly defines the relationship between blame and leadership: “Leaders take ownership of the results and do not try to excuse those or blame someone else for them.” Cloud goes on to bluntly state: “Blame is the parking brake for improvement” (p.186-187). Essentially, successful leaders care less about who is at fault, and are more focused on “What can I do to correct the situation and make it work?”

There are at least two points of application here. First, I believe it is always best to look at ourselves first:

  • Am I a blamer?
  • Am I reluctant to accept responsibility for my choices and actions, especially when they lead to a negative result, even if it was unintentional?   (As my wife gently corrected me a number of years ago, “If you step on somebody’s hand, it hurts whether you meant to do it or not.)
  • Do I try to “get out of” tight situations by making it look like it was someone else’s fault, even though I am at least partly to blame?

If there are “yes’s” to the above questions, I would encourage you to start monitoring your speech — what you say and how you say it. This will give you some clues to how you perceive your situations, and whether you are willing to take responsibility for yourself and the choices you make.  Try hard to not say, “Yes, but …”   Just say, “Yes, I did that” and leave it there.  Then see what happens, how others react.

Secondly, we need to look at those close to us:

  • Are there people in my life (either family, friends, business colleagues, vendors) who create ongoing challenges in my life?
  • If so, are these difficulties due to poor choices they have made?
  • Does it seem that they frequently (and repeatedly) deny any responsibility for the problems they are experiencing?

If the answers are yes, I wouldn’t encourage you to “do” anything at this point. Rather, just sit back, observe for a while, and take notes.  At the same time, observe those individuals whom you respect — see what they do and say when they make a mistake.  I think you will see some differences.

One of the best responses I have observed is:  “Yes, I did that and it was a mistake.  And I’m working on what I need to learn so I don’t make the same mistake again.”

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May 22, 2014 5:55 pm

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