People make mistakes. Things fall apart. The only surprising thing about the very common phenomena of faulty leadership and project failure is the disbelief and disappointment that people express when things go wrong, and our eagerness to look outside ourselves when searching for something—or someone—to blame.
Look at the responses to CIO Senior Writer Thomas Wailgum’s online request for stories about IT’s worst practices. As Wailgum’s respondents recounted the oh-so-familiar stories of shortsightedness, finger-pointing, incompetence and just plain meanness, they revealed their own anger and hopelessness—emotions that come from a sense of powerlessness.
Consequently, none of the online respondents talked about their own mistakes or discussed their own acts of commission or omission that ensured that things would go from bad to worse.
The voices in these stories were largely the victims’. But how many were complicit in their own victimization?
Early in my career, I had an abusive boss. At the time, for a variety of reasons, I lacked the courage to report the issue to my seniors and kept quiet. As a consequence, others were abused as well. I made a mistake, and I learned from it. Many years later, when I reported to an abusive CEO, I called him to account. True, I could have been fired, but jobs are easier to find than one’s dignity once lost.
What really matters is not what happens to you or around you; what matters is how you respond and what you learn from it. Unfortunately, most people have a difficult time acknowledging their own accountability for the messes they find themselves in.
In one organization, for example, a change agent with a hefty budget and a senior-level mandate quickly created enemies due to her tendency to talk too much and belittle the work of others. While it’s true that she behaved inappropriately, why did the organization have to pull in an external coach to deliver the message in the first place? When she recently said to me, “This organization is so passive-aggressive; people never say what’s on their mind”—sure, she was partly in denial, but she also had a point. Her behavior could not have continued were it not for the fact that those around her were unwilling to step forward and call her on her behavior.
The tendency to externalize is never more obvious than when I am playing back 360-degree feedback to a client. My first challenge is to get through the “buts”: “But they wanted it done cheaper and faster.” “But they didn’t involve me.” Once those excuses are cleared away, my client is able to identify ways he could have improved the situation.
Next, to test the client’s understanding of the feedback, I ask him to do three things: Write down what he’s heard and learned, commit to future actions and meet with others to review their insights. Most clients get through the first task, although it usually requires two or three iterations before it’s clear that the words have made it from head to heart. But less than 75 percent of clients make a meaningful commitment to change, and only about 25 percent ever meet with critical stakeholders to secure support.
Most people, when faced with setbacks or negative feedback, have a tendency at first to place blame externally. Only those with humility, self-confidence and discipline are able to take the steps necessary to internalize criticism and be accountable. Exploring the good, bad and ugly of one’s impact on others is a humbling process. Translating insights and commitments from thought to action requires the courage to forge more trusting, productive relationships by exposing your vulnerabilities and negotiating changes that will benefit both parties.
Stop criticizing and start empathizing. Aspire to become a better leader by, in the words of Jim Collins, “look[ing] in the mirror, not out the window, to apportion responsibility for poor results, never blaming other people, external factors or bad luck.”
Leaders understand that when one person changes, everybody changes. And that’s a source of hope in a messy world.