The Responsibility Process Phase 1: I Blame Others

This text series goes through the model presented in Christopher Avery’s book The Responsibility Process. According to that model every person takes certain mental steps when they encounter adversity or problems. These steps are lay blame, justify, shame, obligation and responsibility.

The purpose of this series is to introduce the different steps and guide towards responsibility. And also to consider what use this all could have from the point of view of a technical expert. Further background for this series is found here.

The Responsibility Process activates, for example, like this

Your team has been working their ass off on an extremely tight sprint and the changes have been brought to production in the morning. For some reason, however, the changes have broken the checkout page of the client’s online store and with each minute the client is losing potential buying customers. The client has taken an assertive conversation with the project manager, after which the whole team has been called for a meeting.

The more people enter the room, the more gloomy the atmosphere grows. Everyone is squirming in their chairs and there’s unspoken irritation, frustration and concern in the air. You are the head of testing in this project and you feel how the agony is pressing your chest. The PM steps into to the room and asks with an emphatic voice: ”What on earth has happened?”

What happens?

It is a completely natural and automatic reaction for a person to lay the blame on others first. Everyone in the room is aiming to find someone else who could be at fault instead of themselves. Hence, the blaming and finger-pointing begins and everyone from the stupid client to the sloppy PM will be standing on the line of fire.

Your mind is frantically trying to spot the fault in others just as well. It was the one, who wrote the test cases. Or most certainly the one, who wrote the broken code. Or that guy, who didn’t give you enough time for the testing. Or the one who called in the middle of everything and interrupted your concentration.

There either are, or are not, those that can actually be held responsible for what happened. If there are, we might get stuck at this state: this is not my fault, it’s the fault of that other person. This is where we get a moment of relief from the guilt and agony, that is pressing us. But this step will not solve the situation.

What happens if we stay in the laying of the blame?

Blaming, you see, is poison to teamwork. It prevents from finding productive and creative routes out of the problem. It makes us avoid responsibility and it doesn’t stop the mistake from happening again.

We stay in a position of a victim: we are now, and will continue being, reliant on what other people do. We assume that in order to make our problems disappear others need to change.

But what if they don’t? Will you find yourself in the same situation over and over again if someone happens to write lousy test cases? If someone calls you and interrupts your concentration? If the schedule is impossible? If Somebody doesn’t do her job?

In his book The Responsibility Process Avery writes that laying blame is emotional – not rational – reaction. But we take advantage of rational arguments on why we are justified to keep on blaming others for the situation. We can stay on this pit and wait that others will change, which might never happen. Or we also have another option.

From laying the blame towards the next step

This sounds ridiculously simple and it kind of is as well. The blaming stops immediately once we refuse to blame others.

At first we have to become aware that blaming is a perfectly natural and automatic reaction in a moment of a misfortune, a problem or a conflict (what I have – what I wish I had). After that, it is possible to recognise that a) I am blaming and b) I don’t want to blame.

Sometimes it is only afterwards that we realise we have been blaming. Other times we get caught while it happens. Every once in a while, on a good day, we recognise what’s about to happen even before it happens. Main thing is that we constantly aim at being aware of our emotions and thoughts.

Avery reminds us that every problem and upsetting moment is a possibility to practise. Learn to ask yourself:

  • Am I laying the blame for some situation in my life, work or relationships on someone else at this moment?
  • How blaming others prevents me from making better decisions and solving this problem?
  • How much more energy am I going to use on blaming?
  • How could I catch myself faster on blaming in order to move from living with the problem into solving it?

When the blaming stops, justifying arrives. That is already a step forward.

In which situations do you easily blame others? Are you doing it right now? Come join the conversation on our Slack community!

TL;DR: The Responsibility Process phase 1 – Laying blame on others

  • When a human being encounters adversity or a problem, the first and completely natural reaction is to blame other people for the situation.
  • If you get stuck here, the only way out of the problem is that others change or act differently.
  • Blaming doesn’t take the situation any further, it doesn’t enable creative problem solving or building better relationships.
  • The route out of blaming is to first recognise that now I am blaming and then to decide that I will not make anyone a scapegoat for this problem.
  • It sound simple and it kinda is, but it takes practise and awareness of one’s thoughts.

Or what do you think?

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