That’s a crab. His name is Bernard. We met him on a recent trip to the beach for some relaxation and downtime. He captured our attention as he was quietly digging a hole in the sand beside us. We’d watch as he disappeared below, then tip-toe to the surface, checking to make sure no one was watching, and then fling a clawful of sand to the side. What held my attention to Bernard was not so much that it was humorous – it certainly was but the novelty of it faded long before my gaze did – but the mere simplicity of observation.
Stretched out on a beach, I was allowed to observe, to not have my attention pulled involuntarily. Free to meander mindlessly and envision endlessly. For me, that type of disconnect isn’t restricted to only shorelines. Being in nature, wherever, has always put me in a deeper connection with not only the external environment, but also my greenhouse of emotions.
Turns out, I’m not alone in that a little slice of nature benefits the mind. Research suggests that children who grew up with more green space within their local area, have a decreased chance of developing psychiatric disorders like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and OCD later in life even after adjusting for family history and socioeconomic factors. “Green space” allows greater opportunities for physical activities, social interactions, and quiet getaways. It makes sense that exercise, human connection, removal of technology, and avoiding the constant bustle of a city leads to improved mental health and awareness.
I could have been part of this study. My affection with the outdoors undoubtedly stems from my childhood. I lived outside. From the time it was acceptable to knock on my friends door in the morning to the time the lamp posts came on, I was biking, playing sports, on a trampoline, in the woods, or lounging with friends. Now older, green space is my personal window to self-awareness.
Much like the beach, it is an opportunity to CHOOSE my focus. Whether it is reflection on the past or preparing for the future, the outdoors offers physical and mental breathing room. The ability to stretch the legs and the mind concurrently is freeing. Watching Bernard digging a hole is equally carefree and transfixing.
This introvert prefers going out(side). In a year where outside is publicly safer it is also psychologically safer. We all have temporary stress or anxiety and sun, fresh air, and greenery are natural and free medicines. If your walls are seemingly getting closer, get rid of them. If your mind is noisy, offset it with trees whistling, wildlife whispering. If your world is overrun with digital colors, limit the spectrum to natural green.
When situations go awry, we search for reasons why and direct, maybe even obvious, causes feel more rewarding than interconnected and complex ones. At times, we might apply an obvious cause to a complex situation. When we do, one of the easiest causes is someone else. Human infallibility is fickle. When we decide we’re right, all others are suddenly wrong with little evidence for the contrary. All others are suddenly blameworthy.
Situation Over Character
When we point at someone else, we play the absolved. We attempt to remove ourselves from all participation so that we can’t be the problem. Unfortunately, it also means then we’re not the solution. Subscribing to this mentality can quickly turn our blame into more than what it should be as blame is a prerequisite to judgement. We extrapolate our blame from the particular situation and apply it towards the person, unfairly and disproportionately characterizing them. News flash – being at fault doesn’t equal faulty character.
Let’s say you’re on a team overloaded with projects and another team member makes a crucial error that ultimately you’ll have to resolve. What can play out in our heads is this:
“Oh no, Lucy sent the wrong list of clients to the team to request information from. I’m already so far behind on my projects and this is just another thing I have to fix. How could she have been so careless? She can be so lazy!”
Unfairly characterizing is a justification for your own blame. Lucy is lazy and therefore, it wouldn’t be out of character for her to mess up like this. This way, when you dole out blame, you believe it to be just and fair.
You’ve heard that blaming isn’t kind and that “it’s no ones fault.” There are few circumstances where that is fact. Natural disasters for example, but at best it is a small gesture people say when something does in fact go wrong to make us feel better. In reality, across everything that could go wrong, how often is truly no one at fault? A miscommunication between co-workers leads to fire drills. A disagreement between loved ones feels like a tornado tore through the house. In both situations, there is fault to be had.
Blame though, can be productive with the proper mindset. It can actually strengthen relationships, provide teams clarity of roles, and reverse assumptions. Traditionally we think of blame as rude and demoralizing and on the receiving end, it’s belittling and upsetting. It’s tough to not feel a tinge of regret, even when you don’t care too much for the accuser. The path towards better blame is two-fold.
Division of Blame
To begin with, blame becomes manageable if it is split. I recently heard a story of a group of co-workers that had reached the boiling point on a situation where no one seemed to be listening or working to improve. It culminated in a large meeting that was honest, emotional, and necessary for them to ever move forward. While I was listening to them recount the past events, from my view, it seemed as though all of the blame was being put towards one individual. They weren’t being direct in their words, “It was Mark’s fault,” but instead it came through as should haves.
“Mark should have done this.” “Mark should have told us earlier.”
In these situations, I find it an incredible oversight to put all the blame in one basket. The entire fallout of a team is not on the shoulders of Mark. He likely played a major role but I’d venture not 100%. What if instead we assign Mark 60% of the blame so as to ensure he remains the majority but now, there is opportunity across the whole team.
Most importantly, there is opportunity for yourself. How much is on me? 20%? 30%? We’re generally resistant to blame ourselves as we view it as an all or nothing but you’ll find it more palatable to blame yourself for only a fraction of the situation.
Party of Two
Let’s for a moment step outside of a team dynamic and apply splitting blame within a relationship of two where you’re forced to bear some blame. Keep in mind this isn’t an exercise of self-loathing but self-awareness and perception. Perceptions of just how much percentage one owns as your estimate might be very different than theirs. This example happened not too ago between my wife and I…
Normally, I handle the bills but the date slipped past. Prior to that date, while my wife was re-organizing, she moved this particular bill to another area in the house. Since I was looking in the normal location for bills, this could have attributed to my forgetfulness. During our conversation, I claimed 80% blame. My defense was the remaining was hers on account of the relocation. From my wife’s point of view or, based on her perception, she believes it should be 95/5% split.
The difference? She remembers telling me that she did in fact move the bill. I clearly forgot that tidbit as well and accepted her proposal. The other 5% that was hers? We both know I have a tendency of a one-track mind. Great for focusing, so long as I’m focusing on the right things. When she told me, I was distracted by my own task at hand. Rather than assuming I heard and understood, she could have taken the extra time to confirm.
A Cautionary Tale
A note in language. Relationships are unique and need to be handled as such. Actually conferring different percentages of blame might be too forthcoming. Between my wife and I it works. The words and actions are meaningful but the tone of percentages can be playful banter. This isn’t going to work the same in teams. The goal of assigning percentages is to create space for self-awareness meaning it can be done without saying a word.
Don’t start splitting blame if not everyone is aware of the intent. It will backfire and people will get defensive and argumentative. Having this type of candid conversation requires each person to be willing to accept and own their part and be able to view it as solutions-based conversation, not a scapegoat from their own involvement.
From Blame to Ownership
As revealing as it is to split the blame positively, the word still has its negative connotation and can feel like an attack even if it only for a small percentage. So instead of looking around the room and placing blame, let’s place ownership. Mark owned doing what he was supposed to. Mark owned telling his team earlier. How much ownership can I take for the missed bill?
Here’s the second part of better blame (ownership). The admission of it. How do we get to a place where no one has to pry ownership out of others but for each person to be forthcoming with it? As the leader of a team, it is our responsibility to create an environment where people feel safe enough to present such admissions. To show you’re serious in that effort, take the first step. How would our story of Mark been different if it were his own admission of ownership served with a side of opportunity?
“I should have done this. I’ll remember to do so going forward but I might need reminders.” “I should have told everyone sooner. How best does everyone want this to be communicated?”
After hearing admissions like this, the team is going to feel more confident in the future knowing that there are no consequences to admitting ownership and in fact it is expected. From our story, Mark still holds majority ownership but who else at the table owned a piece? If Mark owned keeping everyone involved but missed the mark, did anyone ask? Or did everyone just assume things were happening predicated on no news is good news. Would Mark had gladly given up the information if one person posed the question?
Before you rebuttal with “It’s not my job to do his,” I understand how you feel, I’m guilty of it too, and you’re right in the broad sense. However, is it not your job to ask or speak up for the things you want and need that directly impact you? There is shared space between someone else’s responsibility and your responsibility. That space is where blame turns to ownership.
Simon Sinek has said before “A leader should not take credit when things go right if they are not willing to accept responsibility when things go wrong.” When it comes to ownership, the same principle applies. A leader should not take ownership when things go right if they are not willing to accept ownership when things go wrong. This means being the first to openly admit it. This means guiding the team through “What could we have done better?” to better split up ownership. This means going forth and owning it.
Burnout. An appropriate compound word for when it all falls apart. At work, we’re so busy, so stressed that we can’t keep up. “Drinking from the fire hose” , “Jumping on a freight train”, “Keeping our head above water” are all phrases we’ve heard or even said ourselves. These are all short-term spurts of feeling overwhelming. Burnout however, is over a continuous erosion of our willingness. It’s when we’re trying to hold on, but we’re so exhausted, so done that our fingers slip and it all disintegrates. Burnout at work can impact our productivity, relationships, sleep, and mental health.
It reminds me of the scene in Toy Story where Buzz and Woody are strapped to the rocket gripping onto RC while careening down the street trying to reunite with the other toys in the moving truck. They have so much propulsion pushing them upwards, away from their goal, that Woody’s feeble hands lack the strength to hold on and they’re forced to give way to the rocket’s direction and are shot upwards into the clouds with only moments before the rocket explodes. At the last second, Buzz extends his “high-pressure-space-wings” breaking off from the rocket and both he and Woody “fall with style” into the movie’s most iconic scene.
If only we too could go to infinity and beyond at work. When burnout happens, we don’t have a red quick release button on our chest to hit. We don’t break away at the last second. We’re depleted of all energy to engage thus we go limp, letting the rocket dictate where we’re headed…ending in burnt out cinders. Luckily, burnout is curable. So how do we prevent burnout? How do we be like Buzz Lightyear, the world’s greatest toy, and soar into Pixar brilliance?
Loss of Control
Being overwhelmed by workload demands is one factor leading to burnout. The simplest antidote here is to reduce them. While that might be the simplest, it isn’t always available. The next best thing then is to gain more control over those same demands.
Lacking control is what separates burnout from the typical daily stress everyone feels. Think about this: are you more likely to quit because of the volume of tasks you have to do or how those tasks have to be done? Of the fifteen bullets on your to-do, the one that has to submitted Thursday, approved by two supervisors, formatted just right, takes forever to process, and at the last minute has to be done again because someone submitted their portion late and you’re the only one that knows how to do it is the one the makes us lose our grip.
Much of the previous example is due to red tape, redundancies, and blockades. All of this prevents progress and if progress isn’t being made, teams can become disengaged. Disengaged teams make more mistakes and burn out more easily because they lack the control, or autonomy to refine and streamline. Teams with greater autonomy are entrusted to set their own deadlines and create boundaries for others and have increased motivation to complete excellent work given it is a direct reflection of their skills. All of this results in productivity which translates into efficiencies and efficiencies can support the reduction of the overall demands of a job. A win-win for preventing burn out.
Control the Rocket – Control the Work
Like Toy Story, we too can break away from our rockets before burnout. The propulsion can either push us forward, so long as we have the strength to hold on, or it can cause us to deviate and blow up. Ask yourself, will you let the rocket control you? Or will you control the rocket?
We’re over-apologizers. “I’m sorry” is over-used, a subconscious reaction to any slight we make towards others. The repetitiveness of its use dilutes its authenticity and the proof of its inundation is the robotic response when we do. “It’s ok.” If that were true, was the apology necessary? Apologies are to be rare and genuine, reserved only for when someone has the courage to apologize holistically, and those are the ones that should be gratuitously accepted.
What then separates a rapid-fire apology from one we want to listen to?
Don’t follow up an apology with an excuse. Add-ons like but, I just, or I didn’t mean it isn’t owning up to the apology. Regardless of what you intended, it was received differently. Apologize without defense. Making excuses leads the receiver to believer they’re in the wrong, that they should not have been off-put from what was said initially.
They’re not to be self-serving. If you’re apologizing for your own conscious or guilt, it’s the wrong reason. People don’t hear words, people hear intent. If the only reason you are saying it is if you think you have to, don’t. Take some time for reflection and distance for perspective. Come back when you understand their response.
Do apologize face-to-face, if possible. The delivery method in which content is sent is more influential than the content itself. Making a genuine apology is already Showing Up emotionally, might as well Show Up physically too.
As someone listening to any apology, thank them for it. It shows that you recognize they care enough to make amends. If you’re truly “OK”, thank them regardless and say it was no big deal. However, if your feelings were indeed diminished, let them know. They were willing to start a candid conversation so lean into their vulnerability with your own by explaining your why.
In the end, stop apologizing for the fast and loose, the forgettable, and the unimportant. Do apologize when you fall flat. Relationships are not built on a few comments, but the actions we take over time. One mishap will not break the bank so long as there remains a balance of generosity and kindness. To quote Maya Angelou – “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Fear is quieting. When we disagree with insulting or offensive language, it is the short-term pain, the risk of our own relationship, that blinds us to a better outcome for all. Inaction is accepting that it will continue. Until someone offers a counter argument, others gain superiority in their opinions and belief they’re in the right. How then, do we Show Up and ensure we’re speaking for not just ourselves and our values but others around us?
Lead with emotional composure. Explain how that certain language affects how you feel while limiting the outward expression of it. You deserve to be upset, no one deserves to be shouted at.
Be global in your own language by moving beyond the person directly. “If no one used that language, how would that shift our perception of others?”
Fear is quieting. Courage, is speaking in the presence of fear.