The Blame Game
“In any situation, the person who can most accurately describe reality without laying blame will emerge as the leader, whether designated or not." Edwin Friedman
This past August, after some highly motivational talks from my brother (I wish I had recorded them), I decided to dust off the old football boots and start playing again. After a good stretch of time away from the sport, the results have been predictably mixed. Yet, while the games from time to time have not been particularly enjoyable, the post-game routine has been quite the opposite.
The routine should be familiar to anyone who has played competitive team sports; players congregating in the clubhouse and discussing what's just happened. It's one part group therapy (especially after a loss), one part analysis, and one part synthesis. The game is dissected and through many collective voices a semi-coherent picture of what happened and why it happened begins to emerge.
In sport, there is a generally agreed upon axiom: "The winner is the one who makes the least mistakes." So, when mistakes are made, they are duly scrutinised. This is known as blame apportioning. Who is at fault for the team's failure? Who is the proverbial scapegoat? Ultimately, who is to blame? If you were to ask my teammates why we lost a particular game, you would likely receive eleven different reasons. Yet, despite the variances you may hear, there will be one constant: someone other than themselves is to blame.
Why do we do this? It's because we all have an innate honesty problem. As a child, I vividly remember being taught Aesops fables and one particular story that has never left me, the “Fox and the Grapes.”
The general premise concerns a fox that tries to eat grapes from a vine but cannot reach them. Rather than admit defeat, he reasons that they must not have been worth eating at all. This is where the term, “sour grapes,” comes from. Psychologists have used this fable as an example of Leon Festinger's: Cognitive Dissonance, or “CD”.
"Cognitive Dissonance, is when people find themselves doing things that don’t fit with what they know, or having opinions that do not fit with other opinions they hold." Leon Festinger
In other words, the fox’s retreat from the grape vine clashed with his knowledge that the grapes were tasty. By changing his attitude toward the grapes, he was able to provide an acceptable explanation for his behaviour. Rather than be honest, accept his own limitations and allow that inner tension to motivate real personal growth, the fox changes his attitude to justify his failure. Unfortunately, changing his beliefs was easier than changing his behaviour.
Much has been made of this peculiar time in history, that we all now find ourselves in. Post-Truth? Hypernormal? Intersubjective? These are just some of the terms I've heard that are trying to define the rampant dishonesty that is at play in our culture. From carefully curated Instagram pages, to the swamp of half-baked conspiracy theories, it seems honesty just doesn't matter.
In my own leadership, I've often been faced with this dilemma. When walking on the edge of success, I'm also walking on the edge of failure. If I fail, how do I handle it? How do I explain to my employers, my funders, and my staff why I failed them?
I have made a habit throughout my working life to write things down that inspire me. As I flipped through one of my older notebooks, I came across a small note dated from 2007. It read, "Spoke to my dad today about the situation with X; he told me that dishonesty devalues credibility, and that once you lose your credibility, you lose your influence. Need to tell this guy the truth and accept the blame."
Now, I have no recollection of this conversation, but the lesson has lived with me. Absolute honesty with yourself is a prerequisite for any leader. When you get it wrong, be honest, accept your failure, and use it to change. Change is filled with uncertainties, and that can be anxiety inducing. However, all personal change is the culmination of personal growth. Sometimes you will just not be good enough, and sometimes you won't perform to the level you know you can. But, if you're committed to growing yourself, you will eventually meet the demands of your new reality.
Influence is built and sustained by credible foundations. So just be honest with yourself and others, and don't play the blame game.
As my brother continually says to me as I struggle with my own limitations and my own performance:
"Dan, it's a long season."