Rising above blame and shame as we enter 2021

Dec 31


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Helen Whitten

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Rising above blame and shame as we enter 2021

If a partner, friend or colleague points the finger of blame at you, how do you feel?  Does it motivate you and empower you to do better? Maybe, sometimes?  Or does it alienate you, lower your esteem and sense of agency?  Do you sometimes end up finding ways to blame the other person for what you did or didn’t do?  I suspect all of us have done this at least once or twice in our lives…

We seem to have had almost a decade of blame, accusations of offence, or labelling others for things they may not personally have done, nor intended to do.  But in my own experience of life and my work as a business coach, shame, blame and guilt are not great motivators, in fact they tend to divide people rather than bring people together.  Also, while we blame others we do not always take responsibility for our own part in problems or situations.

We have now had years of shaming around political division, social division, Brexit, Tory versus Labour, Republican versus Democrat, XR, BLM, LGBTQ, accusations of cultural appropriation, the mistaken use of a particular word, even shaming against the use of the full stop, which is apparently an aggressive way to sign off texts and causes offence to some.  All these causes matter.  Everyone needs a say, but surely no-one should be silenced or cancelled, unless they are inciting violence.  People certainly can benefit from being enlightened about the true facts of history, as every nation has tended to skew how their history is taught.  Language and behaviour needs to be reviewed in the light of cultural changes but the potential for offence through difference of opinion is part of life.

It always surprises me that much talk is given to diversity policies but that these only seem to be skin deep as when it comes to diversity of opinion there is, it seems to me, extraordinary intolerance.  There has been too much of an emphasis on “my view is the right view” which is basically both divisive and fascist, whether the person speaking it is on the left or the right.

If we are to create a better world in politics, trade, equality of opportunity, diversity, health, education, social cohesion and the environment then we shall need to unite in our efforts.  But if one group points fingers of blame or shame at another group for events or actions that they may not personally have been involved in, then this can alienate and divide rather than motivate people to draw together to act in a united way, focusing on the greater good.

In our work in business, when a leader or manager wanted a team or an individual to take specific action we asked them how that person would need to feel emotionally in order to be motivated to take the action.  For example, if they hadn’t been communicating sufficiently with a client would shame and a wagging finger of criticism help them do this or would empowerment and confidence-building be more likely to help them carry out the task that would most benefit the organisation?  And if empowerment was selected as a motivating force what did the boss need to say and do in order to make that person feel empowered to take the desired action?  This way the responsibility for the action is shared and each has a reason to help the other, working together towards the shared goal.

Or, take another example, if a people-oriented person had failed to fill out administrative spreadsheets that they considered boring, would it motivate them to be shamed for not completing them or would it motivate them more to understand how that form-filling would help others?  And if the latter, then the boss would need to help that person understand how people would benefit from the data in those forms because this would be more likely to get a result.

I have heard people in most countries of the globe criticise their politicians as ‘incompetent’ in how they have managed this covid crisis.  The reality is that there was no magic bullet, no certain science, some countries locked-down, others had curfews, others allowed 3 people to congregate, others allowed 10, some closed schools and shops, others didn’t.  There has been no huge logic or certainty in all this.  But in the process, trust in politicians around the world has diminished.  We certainly need to criticise and analyse the decisions made in our name and yet we don’t have to buy into the endless complaining or self-denigration that this ends up being, do we?  Does that help us feel empowered to move forward for the benefit of all?  Can we accept that mistakes have been made and make every effort to take personal action to remedy the situation – whether this is masks, gloves, hand-washing, self-isolation or vaccination?

When I was helping women in the workplace to feel empowered, it did not help them to succeed for them to continue to believe “it’s a man’s world.  I am invisible. It’s unfair.”  This sets up a body language of defensiveness and victimhood that can have the opposite effect, as it divides that person from others.  It is more helpful for that person to stand tall in their own shoes, remind themselves that they have something to contribute, that they are part of the solution.  It helps that they do not point fingers of blame at others because blaming and shaming alienate.  It helps that they bring into the workplace a sense of confidence that they are seen, are appreciated, are a useful part of the team.  Change occurs through acting ‘as if’ you are already part of the team, part of the solution.

The greater good, in the future, is surely that we pull ourselves out of this Covid crisis through hard work and enterprise.  If Brexit is going to happen, which it is, as the act has been passed, it surely helps no-one, at this point, to fight it because if it is happening then the greater good for oneself, one’s children and grandchildren, and the population in general, is to work together to make it work in the best way possible.  When it comes to equality, the greater good is to enable others to feel equal through individual action and words.

Without a crystal ball no-one can be sure that their view is best, as the future has not yet happened, so might we rise above this tendency to virtue signal, which is a one-up one-down way of communicating and become more curious about why others hold different views?  In my experience there is often more in common in these conversations than one might have imagined.  There have always been divisions in approach between generations and groups but there was less vitriol in the past, I feel, more curiosity.

Research shows that the most creative teams are those who offer diverse knowledge, experience and ways of looking at things.  As Einstein said “we can’t solve a problem with the same thinking we used when we created it”.  We need different perspectives to find solutions to our problems.

For we usually have something to learn from those who think differently from us, don’t we?  I get my best advice from those who think differently to me, for sure.  A nugget here, an insight there, some aspect that had never occurred to me but had occurred to them.

Surely this is how we can create a better world, with less focus on divisive finger-pointing and taking offence and a greater focus on ‘how can we best do this together?’  Because it is in all our benefits.

Happy New Year.  A vaccine is on its way.  A light in this winter darkness.  May 2021 indeed be a better year for us all.



One Response

  1. Thanks for your insights and your thoughts Helen. As always you take a kind and compassionate view.
    Best wishes to you and yours for 2021.

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