The Responsibility Process Phase 3: Shame Strikes Without Pity

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 and here you can find the previous parts: phase 1 (lay blame) and phase 2 (justify).

Through the case study to the step of shame

In our case study the changes of the latest sprint are now taken to production and the checkout page of the online store is broken. Under the pressure of the angry client the PM has called up a meeting and is now in return putting pressure on the team. In this scenario you are the head of testing of the project.

The first step was to find scapegoats in others (Lay blame). The mind goes frantically through all that has happened and tries to find out who could be at fault – and often the scapegoat is indeed found. Once you realise you are blaming and decide not to do that, justifying and making excuses (Justify) takes place.

That’s when the fault is still elsewhere other than in you, this time in the circumstances – in the schedules of the project, the test cases and so on. Like with the blaming, the justifying stops by becoming first aware of it and then by deciding: “no, I will not blame the environment for this situation, because it doesn’t help me.”

After that comes the shame automatically. After blaming everything else the focus will turn on yourself and you start to feel ashamed of the situation. You feel ashamed that you weren’t more careful. That it was at your watch when something like this occurred. You feel shame because the client is now unhappy and angry. You might even say out loud that it was your fault and everyone else will sigh of relief. The common scapegoat has signed up and everyone else gets off the hook

For how long are you going to beat yourself up for being human?

In shame we think we are worthless and bad. Like it is said in Brown’s The Power of Vulnerability, the feeling of shame makes us focus on ourselves. We think that we deserve all the bad things that will come of this. For some reason also our culture is constructed in a way that the person, who feels shame, is seen as a responsible and decent human being. When someone admits with shame, that they did something wrong, we think they are taking responsibility.

Avery disagrees. According to him on the step of the shame we are not yet anywhere close to taking responsibility. But we are, though, heading towards it. We aren’t there yet, because feeling shame doesn’t solve the problem or take away the agony that comes with it. We are still coping with the problem instead of solving it. In shame we are the problem and as long as we hang around in the shame, we remain being our problem.

The way out of shame goes through one simple question. Ask yourself, how long do you deserve to be beaten up for being human? Everyone makes mistakes, everyone fails, nobody is always perfect, right and good.

So, for how long will you continue blaming yourself for your humanity?

Also to rise to the next step, it helps if you remind yourself that as long as the shame has a hold over you, you won’t get to the solving of the actual problem.

When we accept this and forgive ourselves, we rise to the next step, which is obligation. Many of us spend there all our lives.

Do these steps arise feelings or memories? Do they activate situations, that you had already buried or just learned to cope with, to be dealt with? Share your experiences in the comments or join our Slack community!

Ps. If you understand Finnish, I recommend the episode Häpeä of Antti Holma’s Auta Antti! podcast to be paired with this text.

TL;DR: On the third step of the responsibility process I feel shame

  • After all the external factors we start to focus on ourselves and we absorb the blame. We start to feel shame.
  • In shame we think we are the problem and that we deserve all the bad things that will come to us as a result.
  • Shame is culturally considered responsible and we are usually pleased when the evildoer is at least decent enough to feel ashamed.
  • Shame is not, however, a state of responsibility, because it doesn’t help us solve the problem itself.
  • You get rid of shame by asking yourself: how long do you deserve to be beaten up for being human?
  • After the shame we get to move to the next step of the responsibility process which is obligation.

Or what do you think?

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