A Tendency to Blame and an Inability to Confront
I am on vacation this week, and will be going back to the vault for some ‘oldies but goodies’ posts. I hope you enjoy them: I’ll be back in a week or so with new material.
Over a delightful lunch last week, a client said to me, “I don’t remember where I got this, but I have a saying I keep nearby in my office:
"All management problems boil down to two things: a tendency to blame, and an inability to confront."
“I know where you got it from,” I said; “you got it from me, and I got it from Phil McGee.” Credit where credit’s due, Phil.
And here’s why credit is due.
A tendency to blame. To “blame” someone means to falsely suggest that they are responsible for some negative thing. The problem starts with ‘falsely,’ and gets worse.
To lie about someone makes you a liar. It means we cannot believe what you say. It means your motives are suspect, and therefore all actions that follow from them.
And lying about someone’s responsibility isn’t just lying–it’s lying about someone. It is an indirect form of character assassination. “Blamethrowing” is an apt pun, for blaming is ferociously destructive.
Finally, it’s evasive. “It-was-him” means “it-was-not-me.” Blaming means manipulating the listener—for the blamer’s own hidden purposes.
Inability to confront. Blame goes hand in hand with an inability to confront others directly with the truth. “The truth” is very simple—it’s what happened, what someone felt, what is. It’s reality.
I mean “confront” here not in a negative sense, but in a sense of being able to speak, to another human being, that which is true. Inability to confront means inability to have an honest conversation with another about the truth.
Evasion. Insinuation. Insincerity. Implication. Avoidance. Dodging, fudging, skirting, deception, fabrication, distortion. These are accusations we level against those who cannot confront.
Yet the accused doesn’t hear them—because their inability to confront extends to themselves. “I didn’t mean to hurt,” they say—often sincerely. But partially "good" motives do not excuse wrongful actions—or inactions.
Is Phil overstating the case when he says “all management problems can be reduced” to these two? Let’s see. What about:
• Giving and receiving feedback
• Crisis management
• Problem definition
• Project management
• Relationship management
Blame and inability to confront affect each item on that list, and that list covers a multitude of management issues.
What is the opposite of a tendency to blame and an inability to confront?
Someone who speaks the truth. Who speaks it in a way that can be heard by all. Someone who accepts his own responsibility—no more, no less. Someone who simply sees things as they are. And who is willing to assign responsibility exactly where it belongs, equally whether it’s his or someone else’s.
When we can see things as they are, and confront them as such, “blame” disappears. There is simply truth, and our various roles in dealing with it. Once seen, it is easily spoken.
The trick is to see things as they are.
As usual Charles, excellent post. This is so important. People respect you so much more when you are just honest. Most people can take criticism when they deserve it. Too much of the time managers believe that they will hurt feelings if they are honest. If the truth hurts then something needs to be fixed.
Great tug on the sleeve. Some thoughts:
One of the most insidious and destructive behaviors impacting truth-telling at work is collusion. Collusion occurs when two people tacitly agree to set aside their true selves in order to support some joint phoniness.
By colluding, we allow one another to feel emotionally safe. The price of this false safety is both parties run often self-destructive, self-sabotaging, and limiting behaviors in order to gain acceptance, approval, recognition, and security…all by not telling the truth.
Collusion is saying: “I’m going to let you behave the way you want or need, so I can feel good about our relationship — even though I know our collusive behaviors are inappropriate and self-destructive. I expect you to do the same for me.”
Collusion is a type of fraud. It is both living a lie and supporting another to live their lie. Neither “shows up” with integrity or authenticity. It seeks to obscure — or fake — who each person is, and how they relate to themselves and others. It is ”business as usual” while carefully tap dancing around the elephants in the room….the truth
General expressions or behaviors that reflect collusion include:
People collude when they support and pledge allegiance to an incompetent leader or manager; when they turn a blind eye to the inappropriate behavior of a direct report or co-worker, so they can feel safe with each other, while the unsatisfactory behavior continues.
“If I collude, s/he will appreciate my support and feel seen; and I’ll experience his/her appreciation as a result. That will allow me to feel “OK” in this (dysfunctional) relationship.”
People collude when they share information with a select few and create a clique, with the purpose of being viewed as caring about the others and making them feel special.
By resisting the truth — and perpetuating the other person’s false belief that his/her behavior is acceptable — they play the game of mutual acceptance while perpetuating a phony relationship based on false respect.
We all experience a sense of deficiency in some way. It’s a fact of life. Just about everyone has some lurking fear that we are not good enough or are lacking in some other way. It’s part of the human condition. In dealing with this innate sense of deficiency, we come up against these options:
Collusion is lying to protect one another’s fragile egos, instead of speaking and acting with integrity and responsibility. It is a drug that leads to progressive levels of dependence.
Once they start, colluders need to lie and collude more and more to maintain the false feeling of emotional safety. As a result, they must live in a constant state of vigilance, preoccupied with whether they will be found out and their false facade penetrated. They are constantly concerned that their co-colluder(s) will have a “conversion” and walk away, leaving them alone with the unpleasant and uncomfortable truth of who they really are. They are terrified that, one day, they’ll be “outed.”
Colluding requires an inordinate amount of physical, emotional, and psychic energy. It demands continually shoring up relationships that have no foundation beyond mutual convenience. Like all lying, it demands constantly remembering which particular lies you are currently telling — with the additional burden of recalling the other person’s lies as well. It is corrosive to head, heart, and soul.
Meaning, happiness, true friendship and truth-telling most often appear as the top responses to the research question, “What’s really important to you at work?” You can’t collude and expect to find real meaning, real happiness and the truth at work. Acting as if you can itself demands collusion.
The simplest approach to ridding oneself of the need to collude is twofold:
Telling the truth will set you free: mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually, and psychologically. Telling the truth allows you to behave authentically and with integrity; to show up in an honest, sincere, and self-responsible way. Telling the truth is the only way to experience a life of real happiness and self-fulfillment; and to experience true relationships with others — to dance through life in lightness and freedom, rather continually tap dancing around all those looming, invisible elephants.
Very interesting, Charlie.
I’ve always found that successful leaders worry less about who screwed up last time and more on what do we need to do to learn from last time and make sure we all get it right next time.
That said, you write: " To “blame” someone means to falsely suggest that they are responsible for some negative thing."
The dictionary defines blame as "to hold responsible, or to place responsibility for." (Don’t take my word for it, check in your dictionary of choice.) And this is certainly how I hear the word used in most of the English-speaking world.
However, in the US these days, "blame" is often used in the way you’ve defined it, with very negative connotations.
I wonder how the meaning of the word changed from connotations of accountability to slander, and how widespread this useage is in America; I wonder how accountability got such a bad rap.
Thanks as usual for such a fascinating and provocative comment. Though I’m not sure we see this one the same way.
When I look at dictionary.com, I get:
1. to hold responsible; find fault with; censure: I don’t blame you for leaving him.
2. to place the responsibility for (a fault, error, etc.) (usually fol. by on): I blame the accident on her.
4. an act of attributing fault; censure; reproof: The judge said he found nothing to justify blame in the accident.
5. responsibility for anything deserving of censure: We must all share the blame for this deplorable condition.
6. to blame, at fault; censurable: I am to blame for his lateness.
Reading these definitions, I don’t hear a non-judgmental allocation of responsibilty–I hear fault, censure, reproof, error. Not just "he swung the bat that hit the ball," but "he’s to blame for hitting the ball through Mrs. Wilson’s window." Not "he was responsible for X and me for Y," but "he pulled the trigger, I just drove the car."
Shaula, you may well be right about colloquial conversation outside the US; for example, "scheme" means "a devious plan" in the US, while it simply means "plan" in the UK.
But in this case, aren’t we reading our dictionaries differently? At least the US ones?
I came across a whole section in Debretts about business manners and whilst w might think that its pretty much aimed at the British upper classes, when read it makes perrfect sense. Blaming would be considered very poor form and bad manners. I’ll try to summerise the main points ina later post.
I remember something I read that went along the lines of to Blame is to “Be Lame”. When we evade the truth because it is uncomfortable or we want to be nice o someone. What we are really doing is avoiding the truth because it would be painful for us to discuss it.
When I feel that I want to avoid a discussion because I don’t want the confrontation that’s a clue it is an important conversation. I wish I could say I always then chose to have the conversation. That said being aware of our real motivations is the first step.
Great comment John, thanks. That rings very true to me.
Charles H. Green
(from iPhone and possibly speech to text)
Trusted Advisor Associates