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Foundations for Peace

Sixth in the Making Peace series

Copyright © 2001 Dorian Scott Cole

Destroying Peace with Criticism and Blame

It isn't difficult to find places where peace doesn't exit: Children point out the things they don't like about their parents. Husbands and wives criticize each other for every perceived failing, including their individual unhappiness. Neighbors criticize the way other neighbors live. People criticize the government, and government criticizes people. Religious institutions criticize what people do, what they don't do, and what they think. School systems blame parents when children don't learn, and parents blame teachers. Countries point out things they don't like about other countries. If "guilt trips" could be arranged through travel agencies, then those agencies would make a fortune.

Business is a microcosm of our larger world society, and provides a good example of the dynamics that prevent peace. In business, all kinds of people are placed together in an environment and asked to work together. A few years ago, a company I worked for had a medical sales/service district doing $2.5 million in revenue, and supporting a larger $16 million medical products business. But in one geographical area, the company was getting tarnished because within the district were a number of hard to resolve business problems and a number of people who were constantly shirking their work, blaming others, and in constant conflict. Because of these and other problems, customers were dissatisfied to the point of switching to competitor's products. This had gone on for years among largely college graduates. There didn't seem to be any way to resolve the problems - they couldn't get rid of the people, and when new people were added, they soon became just like the others. It was like trying to elect reformers to government - the reformers soon become like the others in order to function at all. The organization was ineffective because people could not live together peacefully. It was the typical, "Blame everything on somebody else and do nothing" political circus.

The company gave the district to someone who had experience dealing with similar problems. How long did it take to resolve the problems? Two weeks. Just two weeks later the problems were gone, people were working together with much less stress, customers were happier, profitability rose, and the problems didn't come back. Two months later the very surprised ex-manager asked me how I had done it.

I can't tell anyone exactly how to find a path to peace and create an effective organization, but I can pass on some real-world experience that provides important keys to the process.

First, it helps to understand that most people really want to do the right thing or do a good job - even most governments. It really helps to understand that at least 80% of people are trying hard to do well and are not trying to put anything over on you. There are sometimes up to 20% of people who need extra help with their work or who have problems that often can be solved in a timely way. If they have attitude problems, they just need to leave.

Of that 80%, those in the top 20% will consistently deliver more than they have been asked for. This is the way people really are - you can count on it. If people aren't delivering, then there is a problem that needs resolved.

Second, the most important key is to provide a healthy atmosphere in which people can thrive. There are a variety of leadership styles, but a good style will create a healthy atmosphere. A poor leadership style creates a corrosive atmosphere that destroys the organization.

Here is an example of the kinds of problems a corrosive atmosphere causes. Begin with the leader who growls one answer, "It's your job, just do it." That example company had a lot of these. They typically were shooting stars who got quick results, moved faster than their mistakes, and left behind a trail of destruction. They had no clue how to work effectively with people. They seem to think that to get things done all they have to do is push, and if that isn't working they just have to push harder. After a few years in business, the pattern of shooting stars and ineffective managers was easy to spot. These leaders set unreasonable and unclear expectations, they are very critical of others, and they pass around a lot of blame. As a result, people don't understand the expectations, they don't know quite what to do and live with anxiety over their work, fearing it may not be good enough. Anytime something goes wrong, the leader is quick to find the responsible party, criticize, and blame. After a while, the "accused" simply shifts blame elsewhere, and no one will take responsibility. People become passive and little work gets done. If work isn't done, it is, "Because of someone else, or a problem with the system." Inevitably conflicts arise and begin tearing down the organization. People have difficulty overcoming obstacles, but won't turn to anyone for help for fear of being judged incompetent or because they don't want to work with others who are critical. People begin to hate to take part in the organization, don't enjoy their work, and leave early to hide from it. People become passive resistant so no work gets done unless it is forced. Productivity falls. People are unhappy and leave. I witnessed two mass exoduses at that company that were partly due to these problems.

The last overbearing and blame oriented manager I witnessed was in the software business. He started the business with his own money. He began every meeting with, "You're killing me! The product is late. You're killing me!" His people worked, but they didn't produce - they killed him. After six more months of pushing, he finally got his product out the door, but with fewer features and it missed the market opportunity. The "accused" closed the business. The last negative managers I witnessed were so negative that they spent most of the day cutting down every other person in management, probably to deflect their own sense of guilt and frustration. While some of the criticism and blame may have been on target, vocalizing it didn't do a thing to help the business, so the business became paralyzed - no one would do anything - and that business closed partly because of this problem.

In contrast, a healthy atmosphere promotes the best from people, without pushing. It isn't a matter of "How do we get it out of them" but of providing an atmosphere where people will do what they naturally do. They deliver, and they respond to needs. A healthy atmosphere is fault-tolerant so there is no criticizing and blame placing. When people make mistakes, they feel badly enough about it, and want to avoid doing it again - they don't need bruised by tongue floggings. If a mistake is made, and the cause isn't clear, then it can be discussed in a non-threatening (not critical, not blaming) atmosphere to find a way to prevent it from happening again (otherwise in a blame oriented atmosphere, blame just gets shifted).

In a healthy atmosphere, people feel free to get advice and ask for help, so results come more quickly. Healthy atmospheres are not lax atmospheres, but are actually demanding. Expectations about what and when are very clear. People want to deliver. In a healthy atmosphere, officials listen to their people about the difficulties they are having, and resolve the obstacles to getting things done. The real key to peace: It is difficult to stop a healthy atmosphere from being peaceful and productive.

The problems described above have everything to do with very different leadership styles. One set of styles provides an environment where people thrive and a lot gets done. The criticism and blame styles provide an environment where people constantly tear away at each other and very little gets done. From my own witness of these leadership styles and their effects, and from my experience in quickly turning these situations around, it becomes easy to see leadership patterns and know where they lead. Leadership that creates environments where criticism and blame are prevalent, quickly become corrosive environments. People stop working together and become defensive, blame their lack of productivity on others and the system, and things deteriorate from there until people leave and the organization fails.

Another good example of the failure of people to resolve differences peacefully is the dynamics within our educational system, as set by the players within it. Largely too many players within the system are blame oriented. The teachers and school systems blame the parents for not spending more time educating their kids. The parents blame the school system for not doing their job. Kids often shift the blame for the parents or teacher's favorite target. The government blames everyone. It is an adversarial relationship, and it results in a continuous cycle of criticism, blame, conflict, and paralysis.

We all have this game that we play of shifting the blame to something else when we don't understand a problem or know the solution. For example, teachers think, "Wouldn't it be nice if Mr. Jones spent his evenings doing school projects with his kids to help educate them - he "should" do that - and then we would have fewer problems teaching them at school." Except Mr. Jones works at a job to pay him enough to feed his family, and his job requires him to be away a lot. But this perfect "idea" that Mr. Jones "should" do what the teachers advise provides a perfect excuse for failing to teach his kid at school. If Mr. Jones could just make his world perfect, the problems would go away. Never mind that the teacher's own kid is flunking out of school.

Mrs. Jones thinks that the teacher's job is to teach. That's the way it was when she grew up - it seemed to work fine. So if her child is not doing well in school, it is the teacher's fault. Never mind that her child hates math because her first math teacher chastised her in front of the other kids for her mistakes and lax attitude. If the kid and the teachers were perfect, the problems would go away.

The kids watch the blame game going on around them, not caring much since it gives them a ready excuse for not studying what the largely find irrelevant to their lives. They join in, regularly charging crimes against the teachers, the administration, and their parents.

The school system thinks that most parents are on power trips and can't see their own children's discipline problems or how much the government has tied administrator's hands. The parents think school administrators are bureaucratic idiots who have no idea how to instill discipline. The parents attack the administrators, and they attack the parents. It is a merry-go-round of finger-pointing that brings in a fresh crop of parents, teachers, and administrators each new school year.

The Idea of Perfection

In the first recorded schools in Ancient Sumer, some children hated school. In 5000 years of trying, we have not created a perfect system of education or a perfect way of being a family. It just doesn't happen consistently. Children are works in progress - they don't respond with an adult level of interest, and they have growth oriented emotional problems that prevent them from consistently responding to education. They have individual differences in the way they learn. They have wide variations of interest in topics at various points in their lives. Parents are so busy and have so many disruptions and problems going on in their lives, it is a surprise that they remain sane, let alone provide perfect environments.

The same principles apply whether in the family or on a global scale. Some people can never be satisfied with what others do, whether it is berating a best performance by their children, driving a mate into hiding because of unreasonable marital expectations, failure to judge work and obstacles correctly so employees are always set up for failure, or criticizing a third world country that doesn't have the ability to respect all human rights. The expectation of "perfection" that we all hold on to, and the accompanying criticism and blaming, needs to be replaced by acceptance and understanding of the idea that we are all imperfect, systems included, and we all mostly try to do the best we can. When we all stop criticizing and blaming each other, we can get on with adapting the process of living together to cope with imperfect conditions. While it is constructive to have "perfect" ideals, and be demanding, it is destructive to have "perfect" expectations.

- Scott

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