Taking the Blame

One of the threads running through my head recently is the importance of stepping up and taking responsibility. I’ve been noticing it in lots of places, in Seth Godin’s blog, in the book Lipstick on a Pig (where Torie Clarke’s first piece of advice is “Deliver bad news yourself, and when you screw up, say so—fast!”), and even in sports, as discussed yesterday. It’s a central concept, and yet it’s so very hard to do. Nobody likes admitting they’re wrong.

However, admitting when you’ve screwed up is very powerful, as the ritual of the confessional indicates. It states to others that you take responsibility for your actions. It engenders trust that you will not leave others to answer for your mistakes. You can’t build a strong relationship with other people if they believe that you will desert them during hard times.

I have generally had very positive relationships with my co-workers. And I think one of the reasons for that is that I freely admitted when I made a mistake. If somebody pointed out a mistake in my code, rather than blame other people’s specifications, I’d go “Yup, my bad!” and sit down and fix it. While other software engineers would still be pointing fingers, my users would have a fixed version. And that sort of responsiveness and willingness to admit blame built a lot of social capital with my coworkers. It also meant that on the occasions when I said “No, it’s not my fault”, they believed me because I had been so free to admit it when it was my fault.

I think too much of our society believes that admitting mistakes is a sign of weakness. We would rather let everything fall completely apart rather than change our minds. And I just don’t get that, as the linked post demonstrates. Only the strongest people can admit they were wrong. It’s the weak who cling to their self-image of infallibility in the face of evidence to the contrary.

I have no respect for “leaders” who try to pretend that they are always right. I found it laughable when Bush claimed in one press conference that he had never made a mistake. He felt like admitting a mistake would make him less of a man, less trustworthy. But by refusing to admit mistakes, it’s harder to take him seriously when he claims the rightness of his actions. Does he really believe that he’s right or is he just spinning? Ironically, I think he would actually be more trustworthy if he admitted his mistakes, because then we would know the difference. Because he reflexively spins all of his answers the same way, we are like the villagers listening to the Boy Who Cried Wolf, with no idea of whether he’s really telling the truth this time.

I think this is a fault that many managers have as well. They are insecure in their position over others, and want to be perceived as being worthy of their superior position. So they cover up their mistakes. They blame others when things go wrong. And instead of looking worthy, they just look pathetic. Their subordinates know where the fault lies, and if the manager’s boss doesn’t, then it just demonstrates the company’s spin infestation. As soon as one finds out that one’s coworkers or bosses would rather be mistake-free than honest, it’s time to leave.

It’s tough to take criticism. It’s also tough to give it. It’s only when somebody has shown themselves open to admitting their faults that others will feel that it is okay to criticize, even in a constructive way. If everybody is intent on maintaining the appearance of perfection, then the status quo will be to be inoffensively polite. It’s only when people know and trust each other that they will be able to offer up suggestions for improvement, and often make each other stronger in the process. Many people are bewildered by the adage of TEPs that “Nobody gets as much abuse as they deserve”, but in some ways, it’s a sign of how close our community is that we feel free to give each other a hard time. Or maybe I’ve just been warped by too many years with my friends.

So what’s the bottom line? Take responsibility for one’s actions. If you really want to get ahead in the world, take responsibility for something more, a team or a group. My friends who have been successful stepped up and put it on themselves to make a company work even when there were significant impediments to doing so. They learned from their mistakes rather than hide from them. Isn’t that a more pleasant world to live in than the superficial world where we all pretend nothing goes wrong?

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