How to Change Blaming to Leading: Part 1

two hands of businessmen, fingers pointing at each otherI was honored to be asked to give the keynote speech at Agile Day 2010 NYC in Times Square last month. I called it: “Are We As Agile as We Think?”

Shared Responsibility

Early in my speech I asked how many in the room are in a position of “shared responsibility” in their workplace. I asked: “Are you in a position where you are  not in charge of them and they are not in charge of you but your own performance depends on what you do together?” Every hand went up. This is a challenging situation for most as the setup leaves us vulnerable because we can not guarantee that our teammates are doing a great job. If they don’t, their bad performance reflects on us.

As an organizational scientist I have spent the last 30 years researching the phenomena of people having a hard time taking personal responsibility. When things go wrong, we immediately find excuses and blame others for the poor performance. Why is that? In my speech I went into detail about what actually happens in those situations.

It is fascinating what goes on in our brain and how we are hard-wired to respond in a predictable fashion. There is a natural mental process that plays out dozens, maybe hundreds, of times every day that protects our egos from our own painful mistakes. More importantly, it keeps us from solving problems, adding value, and making forward progress.

The mental process is simply this: each time something goes wrong, we do our best to avoid owning it.

We all do it, no matter how responsible we attempt to be. It matters not whether the problem is big or small — the mental process is the same. The existence or lack of personal responsibility is not so much a character trait (or flaw) as it is a well-developed and practiced mental process. People who are well practiced in avoiding ownership for their actions are usually quite effective at it. The level of a person’s intelligence or other professional skills make little difference. In fact, the smarter someone is, the more creative that person will be to avoid ownership. Have you ever noticed that the most intelligent people tell the most elaborate stories?

“Who took my keys?”

Here’s an example to see this response in action. What’s the very first thing you think and maybe even say when your car keys are not where they are supposed to be? I’ll bet you it is: “Who took my car keys?! ” That’s not just a figure of speech. That’s the communication of a thought rooted in an assumption of cause and effect.

I call this Laying Blame, and it is the first of six ways we avoid owning it when something goes wrong. The other five ways are: Obligation, Shame, Justify, Lay Blame, and Quit. These are the positions of irresponsibility you’ll find illustrated on my Responsibility Process poster. You can download it for free at ChristopherAvery.com.Christopher Avery's Responsibility Process poster

Why does our mind work like that? I’ll get into why we justify our behavior when our competence is challenged in my next blog post in this series. In the following weeks I will explain the whole Responsibility Process and point out why it is so important that we master to overwrite these initial responses in our mind with taking responsibility — because if we don’t change our behavior we will always be dependent on other people changing, and that is unlikely to happen.

You can see the whole video of the Agile Day NYC keynote speech here.

Christopher Avery, PhD, is a recognized authority on how individual and shared responsibility works in the mind and an advisor to leaders worldwide. Learn more about mastering leadership or build a responsible team (or family) at The Leadership Gift. Enjoy a more productive way to live and lead.
Posted in Agile, Coaching, Leadership, Responsibility, Teamwork on 10/26/2010 01:00 am
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