One of the most extraordinary things about many of us is our ability to blame other people. Eavesdrop on a conversation at a water-cooler, coffee machine, or whilst wandering around a store and, eventually, you will hear someone blaming somebody for something. Clearly, in many cases heaping opprobrium on another individual is appropriate especially if it’s is the goal-keeper of your team and they’ve just dropped the ball over the line. However, the people who get it in the neck most are often a group simply called “they”. Of course, there are instances when “they” is used as a term to cover a generic group of anonymous individuals and the motives of “they” are questioned rhetorically; but it’s in organisations that we see the emergence of “they” as a force to be reckoned with.
The issue with “they” is two-sided and reflects to some extent the “us and them” attitudes that have characterised many workplace relationships over past decades. I’ve seen this problem manifest itself at a number of levels, especially during change programmes. Senior leaders often impose change top down. They see their role as making others change and thereby widen the gap between themselves, as the drivers of change, and the rest of the workforce who become the objects of change. This sort of approach helps to perpetuate a degree of learned helplessness and a dependency culture.
Traditional management approaches also tend to make it more difficult for people to see themselves as individuals. Organisational silos and hierarchical structures combine with old-fashioned attitudes to keep people in boxes and inhibit any sense of collaboration or individual creativity. Yet to blame the system for many of the supine attitudes held by people in many organisations is to miss the point. Many people are, to far too great a degree, ready and willing to delegate much of their lives to anonymous others. And when they don’t like how things have turned out, rather than take responsibility they’re happy to blame others. Sometimes it’s due to the dependency culture, including the lure of stability that comes from the security of a regular income with bonuses and a pension. At other times it’s due to personal inertia and a reluctance to shoulder responsibility for oneself. In between the two are those who have postponed their real life until after they have retired, making a quasi-Faustian pact with their employer for deferred gratification.
Those who do take control of their lives tend to find it the most liberating thing that they’ve ever done. As George Bernard Shaw put it: “To be in hell is to drift; to be in heaven is to steer.” Wresting influence from others and seizing back authority over one’s actions can give an extraordinary sense of purpose and direction to individuals. Rather than blaming bosses, politicians, or even society at large, the only person left to blame is the one looking from the mirror. This sense of personal ownership isn’t all about doing one’s own thing. It’s an attitude of mind. Even within large organisations there are those who are able to see beyond what needs to be done towards what ought to be done. Taking control back of one’s attitudes and directions and not blaming others is the route to personal leadership.
For some, of course, there will always be security in the crowd. It’s not just the tribal instinct at play but the feeling that it’s far less tiring having someone else do all the heavy thinking for you. Remember that great scene in The Life of Brian when, in a case of mistaken identity, Brian finds a multitude outside his bedroom window. “You’ve got to think for yourselves.” he says “You’re all individuals” “Yes” the crowd reply “We’re all individuals.”