Off the hook
'To err is human. To blame it on someone else shows great management potential.'
That made me laugh! It’s a fun variation of Hubert H. Humprey’s, ‘To err is human. To blame someone else is politics.’ But wow – how easy it is to deflect and project our own faults and failures outwards onto others. We see it happen all over the place, from interpersonal relationships to international relations. It’s a way of defending ourselves; of trying to avoid or escape the costs of responsibility; of promoting ourselves; of appearing innocent or superior. It’s about helping us to feel good about ourselves and-or wanting someone else to feel good about us.
It's quite tricky if we don’t know we’re doing it – and it can lead to potential high-risk consequences. ‘Self-deception is like this. It blinds us to the true causes of problems, and once we’re blind, all the solutions we can think of will actually make matters worse.’ (Arbinger Institute: Leadership and Self-Deception, 2000). This poses a difficult question: how to deal with our blindness if we don’t know we’re blind? And what if, if we’re honest – for whatever reason – we don’t want to know? An old adage goes: ‘There are none so blind as those that won’t see.’ Ignorance is bliss?
I’ll start with the last question first. If I’m working with a person in coaching or a group in action learning and I sense resistance in this area, I won’t push too hard. It could, for instance, trigger repressed trauma or suppressed anxiety. Instead, I may pose an invitation, e.g. ‘Is this something you would find useful to explore further? What, for you, would be the potential benefits of exploring this, or the potential costs of not exploring it? If you were to explore this, what support or challenge would you need from yourself, me and-or others?’ It’s their call, their choice.
Next to the first question. This touches on a field known as critical reflexivity. It’s like holding up a mirror to ourselves rather than fixing our gaze elsewhere or onto others. We can think of it as something like this: ‘What within me – e.g. in my own past, culture or world – is influencing what I’m thinking, feeling and doing now?’ This could include, for instance, our beliefs, values, hopes, fears and expectations. It could also include hidden vested interests; that is, things we want to protect or preserve and-or to acquire or achieve. Such influences act as subconscious filters.
In coaching and action learning, I work with people and groups to help them learn to pose searching questions to themselves in a spirit of open curiosity and discovery, e.g. ‘Who or what is holding my attention in this relationship or situation? How am I feeling? Who or what am I not-noticing? What assumptions am I making? How is my past influencing my present? Who or what matters most to me now? How might I be evoking this response in the other party? What am I willing to take responsibility for? What do I want or need? What am I willing to stop, start, change or compromise?’
The outcomes and benefits of this approach can be truly transformational. It calls for humility, courage, authenticity and a willingness to exercise personal leadership and agency, yet can open up all kinds of fresh possibilities – and hope. Imagine, for instance, to approach an adversary, prayerfully, in the midst of conflict: 'We are in such a mess. I'm sorry...and, as I look at how we got here, I could have handled my part in this better...' It’s a stark contrast to avoidance, accusation and finger-pointing. What a possibility to co-create a different relationship – and a different future.
(See also: Spots; Art of Deception; Stealth)
4/4/2022 07:06:20 am
A very good article. Thank you. At some point would love to explore in more detail how to handle difficult people.
4/4/2022 10:12:49 am
Thank you, Christine. On the question of 'difficult' people, you may find this short related piece interesting - and the conversation it created underneath it: https://www.nick-wright.com/blog/difficult. Let me know what you think?
5/4/2022 08:16:42 pm
Hello Nick. I see you are a psychological coach. This may sound like a bit of a strange question, but are there any psychological and practical benefits to blaming?
6/4/2022 10:12:54 am
Hi John. Thank you for posting such an interesting and thought-provoking question. That certainly made me think. I read some interesting reflections in a piece by 'Abundance No Limits.com' that looks at some (cynical) motivations for and pay-offs of blaming. Here are some of the points they propose:
5/4/2022 08:42:34 pm
Hi Nick. We learn to blame others from an early age at school. We have stories read to us about heroes and villains. We are taught to like the heroes and dislike the villains. It splits reality into good and bad, innocent and guilty. The bad deserve all the blame. The good don't need to take any of the blame. We identify with the good. That means we feel blameless too.
6/4/2022 10:16:59 am
Hi Janice. Thank you for sharing such intriguing psychodynamic insights. It makes me wonder how far our simplistic, binary, personal and cultural ways of thinking are influenced by childhood narratives. As a follower of Jesus, I am always struck by how Jesus challenged people who divided the world neatly into saints and sinners (and who definitely saw themselves as the saints) to engage in critical self-examination, for example:
6/4/2022 01:39:32 pm
6/4/2022 06:23:32 pm
Thank you, Tara. I think you hit the proverbial nail on the head - that a desire to avoid blame is often associated with a learned underlying fear of failure fear of negative evaluation (judgement): from ourselves and/or others.
6/4/2022 07:56:52 pm
Sometimes people are wrong. That’s why we blame them.
11/4/2022 11:55:13 am
Hi Hans. That is a fair challenge. Yes, people may hold themselves, or be held by others, as accountable for their decisions and actions. If appropriate and handled well, that's often a constructive route to learning, development and change. I think I associate the word 'blame' with chastising someone harshly or unfairly, or deflecting legitimate accountability away from oneself. That has a different feeling and outcome.
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