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Managing Ourselves Through a Storm

Lucy and Snoopy working through managing themselves when facing a loss. Credit Charles M. Schulz.

Setting the context for managing ourselves

Managing ourselves through a proverbial storm can be, at times, easier said than done. When things go wrong, it is unsurprising that many blame others or change facts to suit a personal narrative. How individuals in positions of leadership or influence manage in a crisis situation is one of the key themes in the HBO historical drama series, Chernobyl (2019). Within the context of the re-enactment, finger-pointing and changing narratives are commonplace, but is this inevitable in a crisis?

What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all. What can we do then? What else is left but to abandon even the hope of truth and content ourselves instead with stories? In these stories, it doesn’t matter who the heroes are. All we want to know is: Who is to blame?

Valery Legasov

To answer this question, we need to understand the impacts of blame (negative experiences) on relationships, and we need to identify constructive alternatives. 

Impact of blaming on relationships

Studies show that for each negative reaction, it takes five positive ones to overcome the harm done. In other words, for every unkind word or angry tone that leaves our mouth we unwind or undo, five times as much good our previously kind words or behaviours had done. Gottman’s (1970) research findings remain relevant in today’s workplace.

So why does blame happen at all? Beyond the obvious saving face motivation, exists fear and a primal desire to see others change before we do ourselves. Humans are fundamentally wired to blame for two reasons:

  1. Attribution bias 
  2. Our fight or flight response

Attribution bias

Attribution bias is essentially a cognitive process where we evaluate the behaviours of others, and ourselves. In this instance, the brain acts as a perceiver of behaviour, which innately means it is not always right in its interpretations. Effectively we assess the behaviours of others using our own view of the world. We tend to believe that what individuals do reflect who they are, rather than considering that there may be social or environmental factors influencing behaviours. 

This explains why in a major news story human error is the first explanation, often ignoring the chain of events that led to the failure. Blaming can also feel oddly satisfying. When someone else is to blame for our predicament, then they need to change rather than us! 

Our fight or flight response

Neuroscience studies, in simplified terms, find that positive emotions (from something good happening) are processed in our prefrontal cortex. This process tends to take a little while to happen and usually results in us thinking the positive experience is more chance driven. Whereas unfavourable emotions are processed within the amygdala. This is also the area that manages our fight-or-flight responses. Ironically, the amygdala tends to conclude (at lightning speed) that bad things happen on purpose. It happens so quickly that we aren’t consciously aware that we’re making assumptions. We simply “leap” to the conclusion that the other person in question must have done it on purpose!

Knowing about these two human tendencies is the first step in managing them better.

A path for better managing ourselves

To err is human as the saying goes. Laying blame and shame leads nowhere good!

Over the years, we each benefited from learning from our mistakes, so we need to allow others to do the same. For instance, we can use an issue or a mistake as a teaching moment rather than one of naming or shaming. Good leaders will often share their own mistakes and the lessons they learned. This approach also creates a safe space for giving and receiving constructive feedback that allows us to learn and grow. In these teams, employees tend to take ownership of issues and stop passing the proverbial buck down the line.

Additionally, if we adopt a system’s approach mindset when something goes wrong, we change the entire way a team functions. Good leaders might open with: “where did the process break down?” or “how did I contribute to this issue?”, whereas poor leaders tend to open with: “who’s fault is this?” Solutions will flow much more quickly and easily by addressing what is wrong with the process or system than by focusing on what is wrong with other people. We each know, or come to realize, that we cannot change other people. In blaming others, we become passive victims ourselves and stifle accountability by encouraging others to pass the blame along.

Final Thoughts

By managing ourselves better and avoiding the blame game, we will dramatically improve both the workplace environment and promote kindness within the team. By adopting the simple strategies of thinking about mistakes as learning opportunities and adopting a system’s approach, we promote trust and compassion within a high-performing team. This, in turn, will help us attract and retain the best employees.

Your turn

Sign in to the Community Member Area or comment below to share your advice with others on how you manage yourself through challenging moments.   

Give it a try!

Cartoon credit: Charles M. Schulz

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