The typical executive team meeting at most organisations illustrates how blame is a powerful motivator. Like its close cousins guilt and shame, blame is one of the most common forms of motivation used by leaders, parents and politicians. Depending on how people are wired, we blame either someone else, ourselves or the system so we can keep our sense of identity intact.

Blame, guilt and shame all come from the same source – toxic fear. When something doesn’t go the way we think it should, the natural human reaction is to become anxious. Relationships solidify around the roles of victim, villain and the hero, and toxic fear drives this triangle of blame, shame and guilt. No team can win with these elements corroding their effectiveness in the long term.

The opposite of blaming is taking radical responsibility. The key phrase is ‘taking full responsibility’ as opposed to ‘placing blame’. Placing is moving something away from ourselves and taking is moving something towards ourselves. When we place blame, we locate the cause and control outside ourselves. When we take responsibility we locate the cause and control of our lives inside ourselves.

The next step is to support others to take full responsibility for their lives. The key to making this happen is to take full responsibility of our own lives. By moving away from blaming, criticising and the victim-villain-hero loop, we naturally invite others to do the same, without even saying a word.

We know that we can tell the kind of leader you are and the culture you create by paying attention to the kinds of questions you ask. In blame cultures, we hear leaders asking questions such as:

  • Who did this?
  • Who dropped the ball?
  • Who’s going to fix this?

On the other hand, in curiosity and learning cultures where people take 100% responsibility, leaders and others ask these questions:

  • Am I willing to take full responsibility for this situation?
  • What do I really want?
  • Am I willing to learn whatever it is I most need to learn in this situation?
  • Am I willing to see all others involved as my team?

In coaching sessions, I ask for the results the person or team wants to take away from the conversation. Once the outcome is clear, my second question is: are you fully committed to achieving this session’s goals? If the answer is, for example, 80%, I then ask: who then takes responsibility for the other 20%? In so doing the person or team takes the step towards full responsibility.

The entire game changes when we choose to see we are creating our experience, rather than someone or something else is doing it to us.