Have you ever found yourself in a hurry to leave the house for an appointment when you could not find your car keys?
Imagine that you and a friend are in a hurry to leave for an important event. You turn over the couch cushions, rifle through the newspapers on the dining room table, search your previous day's pants pockets, and dig through your purse. Your car keys are nowhere to be found.
Many frantic minutes later, you finally locate the keys. But instead of heading out the door, you argue about who was responsible for misplacing the keys.
Preposterous, isn't it? Laying blame is a further waste of time. Better to hit the road, right? Unfortunately this logic is often lost when ventures fail and organizations fall short of goals. There is a strong predisposition to finding the sole source of fault. But, that is not how to get things done.
Fix the Problem, Not the Blame
This Japanese proverb provides an important lesson on how to appropriately respond to failure. Laying blame will distract you from resolution. To articulate why, I am going to share a revelation with you.
Failure is Painful
We have all been there. Plans are made, resources committed, hours spent towards achieving a goal. Success or failure can weigh on numerous factors and solitary decisions. When failure happens, you are disappointed. You hurt, and you should hurt. The pain of failure is healthy, and can be very productive.
If you believe it is unreasonable to expect perfection, then you allow for the possibility of failure. Excellence is found in your response to failure, not in your elimination of it-that would be folly.
Excellence cannot be achieved without staying steadfast and focused on your goals. Within the construct of excellence, failure is feedback from the system you are operating in. Failure is a call to alter your strategies or improve your execution.
We all make mistakes. Mistakes put you in pain. To solve the problem, requires learning from your mistakes. Why is the pain of failure healthy?
The pain experienced by your failure is your conscience providing motivation to change and the urgency to mitigate the damage. Disavowing the pain, by laying blame, provides you with relief at the cost of distracting your focus and energy away from where it is needed to produce corrective action and results.
Take the timeless example of a losing sports team. When a team is losing, when its performance is inferior to its competitors, what is the standard response? Dismiss the coach; rather than those directly responsible for performance, the players. How often does this improve performance?
Certainly there are instances when coaching changes result in more wins, but rarely are those changes long-lasting. Sports teams relying on a coaching change to alter results are acting in a false logic.
The rare exception when a leadership change produces lasting positive results becomes the justification for others to follow the example. In part, it is the path of least resistance. However, these exceptions do not disprove the rule: fix the problem.
Turnarounds in performance are more often influenced by other factors: changes in tactics, euphoria stemming from the short-term pain relief, changes in personnel or alterations on a systems level.
Whether or not you believe in the chaos theory maxim that the flutter of a butterfly's wings in one part of the world can influence weather in another part, success and failure are systemic. On an individual level, your lasting success is derived from your habits, your work ethic, the system of actions and responses that you have taken the time to program into your psyche, to learn.
This systematic influence of habits, work ethic, and programmed actions and responses, are also true on a corporate level. Where coaching changes, or changes in corporate leadership, are most beneficial is when these changes are a component of systematic alterations.
Then, why are we attracted to blame?
Blame is Easy
Our failures, both individual and corporate, leave us in pain. The psychological process of choosing blame over resolution is immediate gratification. Blame provides a path of less resistance. Resolution requires patience, fortitude, and rigor. Just as it is easier to break a vase then fix it, it is also easier to point the finger at the one who broke the vase then fix it.
However where pain is concerned, you can either pay now, or pay later with interest.
To employ another timeless example, observe closely the next time a highly visible publicly traded company replaces their CEO. The popularity of the move among the financial markets will be reflected in the short-term fluctuation of their stock price. But, what happens long-term?
If the dismissal is a scapegoat gesture, there will be no lasting improvement in the company's financial performance. The company took the easy way out. If the performance improves long-term, you can be sure that the dismissal was part of a systemic initiative: individual and collective habits changed, new plans were developed and carried out, a viable strategic vision was undertaken.
Fix the Problem or the Blame
It is not viable to expect that humans or any collection of humans will not make mistakes. If you are focused on achieving a goal, mistakes are a call to alter your strategy or improve your performance.
So you have a choice: either fix the problem or the blame! You cannot do both. Fixing the blame has the effect of diminishing pain, the same pain that would facilitate the lessons that need to be learned to avoid similar mistakes in the future.
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