Recently I had a coffee with a young friend who runs a not-for-profit organisation.
Normally he is one of the most positive people I know, which is why I so enjoy being with him. He makes me laugh. I’m inspired by his commitment to reconcile communities which historically have not understood each other. And he makes me wish I’d focused more as a young man on making a difference instead of money.
But that day my friend was really down. One of his organisation’s most important funders had just communicated they would not be renewing their grant. The implications were serious going forward regarding staffing and programmes.
He took full responsibility for what happened, which is a powerful thing to do when things don’t go to plan.
But then he started blaming himself for everything that had gone wrong. He felt he should have seen this problem coming. I really felt for the guy.
It was very familiar to me. I’m hard on myself when I’ve done something wrong. I default into ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda’ mode, incessantly mulling over things I believe in retrospect I should have / could have / would have done differently to prevent the disaster from happening. I play every possible alternative scenario through my head as if I could have known the outcome in advance and changed it.
Our culture seems to require a ritual self-flagellation when one has done something wrong. People want to see remorse, a necessary performance of penance displaying how really, truly sorry you are.
You then declare, ‘This will never happen again’ and hope someone believes you.
After you’ve spent enough time in the dog house, you sense the gods and those you’ve upset are finally appeased. You can then move on.
I’ve raked myself over the coals this way many times. It’s always sincere. But is it really being responsible? And does it lead to useful change? No!
The problem with ‘what’s wrong’ thinking is staying stuck there. It’s past based and mostly about protecting my ego. Feeling guilty and stupid does not encourage reflection, learning and adaptation.
Carl Jung, the great psychoanalyst, realised both the ubiquity and damage caused by self-condemnation among modern humans. Once one discovers the worst enemy is oneself, what then? Unless one believes God forgives, or can forgive oneself, “…we…condemn and rage against ourselves. We hide it from the world and refuse to admit ever having met this least among the lowly in ourselves.”
But if one truly wants to be responsible, learn and improve, what else can one do?
A few years ago, one of my best clients announced he was not going ahead with a multi-million-dollar consulting engagement. I’d been counting on it and was shocked. How could I have got it so wrong?
Everyone was upset with me – my boss, my colleagues and my client. I was flogging myself hard, wishing the earth would swallow me up.
Then a wise friend made a mind-altering suggestion.
“Why don’t you stop making yourself wrong?” he asked. “It’s not leading you anywhere productive.”
“I have to take responsibility,” I replied defiantly, wedded to the binary thinking of right / wrong, blame and shame. “The buck stops with me.”
“If you really want to be responsible,” he sniffed. “Ask yourself, ‘what’s missing?’”
It took a while but eventually the power of the question seeped into my brain. ‘What’s missing?’ gave me space to stop and inquire. There was no blame in the question, just curiosity.
Very quickly I realised I’d been trying to do too much on my own. I wasn’t using the expertise of smart people in the firm. Serving clients really suffered.
This simple insight helped me tremendously. I handed some responsibilities over to others and collaborated more with our experts. I prepared well for client meetings and workshops, which reduced my stress and made them happy. It was a virtuous circle.
When I recently told my young friend this insight over coffee he could see ‘what’s wrong?’ led only to self-condemnation. He was actually not to blame for anything. There was no way of foreseeing the funder’s negative decision. All that mattered now was an effective response.
What was missing was to keep sharing the vision with as many people as possible. He still had money in the bank and many leads to follow up. His burden lifted a little.
As mentors we can lift the curse of self-condemnation and help people think creatively. The technique is very simple. If someone is blaming themselves for a mistake, make the distinction between ‘something is wrong (with me)’ to ‘something is missing’. Share from your own experience of blaming yourself. Ask them how each statement makes them feel. For most it is a huge revelation. You’ll see them lighten up and gladly let go of making themselves wrong.
By asking ‘what is missing?’, you will encourage them to reflect without blame, shame or guilt, work out how to clean up the mess, and determine appropriate actions to move things forward.
Have a look at the website http://www.mensbusiness.net for more resources on being a better mentor.