The dictionary says that to “blame” is to: _”Hold accountable, hold responsible, condemn, accuse, consider guilty, point the finger at, incriminate.” The word “blame” is a derivative of the Latin word “blasphemare” which means to “reproach, revile, blaspheme.” Sounds kind of intense, eh?
As human beings, our natural inclination is to defend ourselves against perceived attack, and lash out, either at our perceived attacker, or some other person or thing on which to displace blame.
Members of most organizations know how easy it is for a “culture of blame” to develop–especially at times when people are feeling stressed. Members of families understand this too. In fact, the dynamic is the same in both contexts. It is the dynamic that happens when individuals and organizations are unable or unwilling to look inward. Instead they look outward and find something external to hold responsible for their unhappiness, lack of progress, or lack of success. No one is completely immune to this, it is part of how we humans roll.
Looking inward, looking outward
While anxiety is typically the source of blame, family or organizational members stay focused on outside sources for causing their unhappiness. Rather than getting in touch with their own internal resources and strengths we identify others as the ones who need to change. Thus, we remain stuck and ineffectual, missing the opportunity to respond to things in a healthier way that ultimately results in personal and organizational growth.
I really wish I couldn’t relate so well to what I’m writing about, but I can. I’m betting you can, too. As humans, don’t we all pretty much know what it’s like being on the giving and receiving end of blame? Common targets of blame include: my co-workers, my boss, my parents, my siblings, the leader of the country, my direct reports, the economy, my corporate culture, my teachers, and ________ you can fill in the blank with your default blame characters and situations.
Back to the playground
Blame is simply a reptilian reaction – flight or fight. A close cousin of blame is the belief that we have been victimized by someone, or something. Let’s think about this victim idea for a moment. In your mind’s eye, journey with me to that arena of the school playground. Unless you were raised in a bubble, you no doubt recall the constantly shifting alliances, the non-lethal fights that broke out, the uncensored ridicule of anyone perceived as different from the group that considered itself normal / regular and so on.
Over the course of a typical day, any number of children will make a beeline for the on-duty person complaining about how they’ve been mistreated by someone else. Others withdraw and become isolated.· Those who reach out do so from the belief “I’m a victim, I’m helpless, and you need to do something about it!”
Susan Scott, in her excellent book, _Fierce Leadership,_ speaks unequivocally to this phenomenon:
“Remember, being a victim is not a question of whether we can justify our list of reasons explaining why we are a victim, it’s a question of how we use those reasons to justify staying a victim. After all, every one of these justified-victim events may be true. Maybe Maria_ did kick you in the leg, or you are working for a boss who is a tyrant. If you were victimized, you were victimized. Being a victim is not the problem. The problem comes in the next stage, where we gather evidence to prove that we are powerless in the situation. Being a justified victim is very seductive, so much so that we start to display our victim evidence, our evidence of powerlessness, on our chests like a badge of pride” (Susan Scott, _Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today, New York: Crown Business, 2009).
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.” I think the logic of that statement has great applicability, despite its discomfort. It alerts us to “No one can render you powerless without your involvement.”
Have you been wronged? So be it. You’ve been shafted…hung out to dry…thrown under the bus. Is your new identity – I am a victim? Not necessarily. The answer to that question is more up to each of us tan we might think. You can certainly roll over and give up, thus signalling to yourself and to everyone else that you are ultimately controlled by the behaviours, attitudes, and opinions of others. Or…
The thing about blaming others for your misery is that it prevents you from taking a good look at your own life. It postpones rejection. It keeps the focus of responsibility for your life in someone else’s hands. The great news in all of this (contrary to what your fears may tell you) is that taking personal responsibility for what is yours, and letting go of what is not, will not kill you. In fact, it will set you free!
You don’t have to be obnoxious in your refusal to accept the behaviour of others as being determinative of your self-image. In fact, when others try to pull that on you, your non-anxious, curious response to their attempts can be downright unnerving.
For example, suppose you discover that a co-worker has been gossiping about you, and if taken seriously, the rumours being spread stand to hurt your chances for promotion. What can you do? Are the rumours true, or false? Will you behave in a way that lends credibility to them, or behave non-anxiously in a way that leaves the rumour monger(s) in the position of having to explain themselves?
There are times when a more direct, confrontational approach may be called for, and/or the inclusion of a third party. The position of victim however, is always a losing posture. Why?
- It wears others out and reduces connection (can you think of a perennial victim you admire, and want to spend more time with?)
- It makes it harder for people to respect you
- It makes it hard for you to respect those who are taken in by it
- It makes you less employable
- It contributes to a downward spiral of negativity and powerlessness.
Instead of blaming – self-awareness and self-management
The fact is, we sometimes do live with, or work with extremely difficult people. Sometimes, we are the difficult people! But in learning to take personal responsibility for our own behaviour and emotional responses, we discover that the behaviour of others no longer has the power to undermine us. In fact, since we no longer provide a landing place for their poor behaviour, they are forced to come face to face with their own dysfunctionality.
My approach to coaching is primarily focused on helping my clients become more self-
aware, and better self-managers. We work on leading from a more personally-authentic, non-anxious place, and in that—there is great freedom!
Some coaching questions to ponder:
- Where / when do you find yourself tending to blame others?
- How have you felt like a victim, and in what context(s)?
- Where have you permitted the opinions, attitudes, or behaviours of others to deny you in some way?_
- What examples can you think of from your own life, where you were genuinely wronged, but didn’t let it stop you from moving forward?
- What feel like some of the more sensitive areas of leadership, where you find yourself most easily derailed by the negativity of others? How do you deal with it? How would you like to deal with it?
- Where have you surrendered (or where do you tend to surrender) power to others? _
- Where will you do an about face in an area where you have given too much power to the opinions and behaviours of others?_
- What would it require of you to “pause before blaming”? What advantages can it afford you?
If you need support on your organisation’s and/or leader’s coaching journey, do contact us at email@example.com and our team of ICF professional coaches in South Africa will be happy to help.
Tom Patterson is an ICF credentialed leadership coach based in Seattle, Washington, USA. In addition to coaching, he is a Senior Facilitator for The Energy Project–an organization that helps employees of companies around the world manage their personal energy for higher performance and sustainability, and is a certified trainer for the QPR Institute–an organization that helps workplaces become equipped to be of immediate help for colleagues who may be struggling with suicidal thoughts.
Tom’s coaching is focused around helping leaders discover and navigate that dynamic sweet spot between personal authenticity and maximum effectiveness.
The International Coaching Federation (ICF) is the world’s largest organization leading the global advancement of the coaching profession and fostering coaching’s role as an integral part of a thriving society. Founded in 1995, its 40,000-plus members affiliated to more than 140 chapters in 99 countries and territories work toward common goals of enhancing awareness of coaching and upholding the integrity of the profession through lifelong learning and upholding the highest ethical standards.
Through the work of its six unique family organizations, ICF empowers professional coaches, coaching clients, organizations, communities and the world through coaching.
ICF South Africa is an ICF Chartered Chapter with 550 plus members of which 395 are ICF certified coaches at the ACC, PCC or MCC level (June 2022 figures).
Contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org