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Okay…So, I screwed up!

“The Official Secrets Act is not to protect secrets, Bernard, it is to protect officials.” Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby had the minister’s Private Secretary stumped in the BBC tele-serial ‘Yes Minister’ (Jobs for the Boys ). Not because Bernard was unaware of a law that could perennially save his skin, but because this ambiguity had never dawned on him.

It's His Fault....(Image courtesy: andyblumenthal.posterous.com)

In my formative years, I believed this comment to be pure fiction. For, why would an official need protection? How can a person wielding considerable power run scared of the responsibility that accompanies authority? what stops them from simply owning up an error, wiping the slate clean and starting all over again?

Today, after more than a quarter of a century of work life, I realize now that things aren’t so simple. The slate can never be wiped clean. For, owning up not just about admitting guilt but also complicity in the matter. And, complicity obviously connotes nebulous intent. When intent is questioned, crime is implied. And, the onus of proving ‘not guilty’ rests with the accused!

The British have colorfully described this process as ‘playing the man instead of the ball’. Most of us try to “play the man” when we get caught with our trousers down and are desperately trying to avoid embarassment. The first instinct is to rat on a colleague and the next is to try and share out the blame equally. Collective irresponsibility is how Sir Humphrey describes this.

So, why are we afraid of owning up? Simply because by owning up we open ourselves to criticism. Our peers become more judgmental and less helpful. Haven’t we seen politicians bark at each other when something goes wrong and a blame game begins? So engrossed are we playing this game that most times the hapless victims do not get any assistance till its too late.

Of course, the blame game manifests even in such mundane situations as showing up late for a meeting. We blame the traffic, the driver, the car, the weather – in fact, everything except ourselves for missing the deadline. All it would have taken us to avoid this embarassment was to leave the house a few minutes early! But, that’s a different story altogether.

Blame Game (Image courtesy: timescontent.com)

In government circles, the blame game is played out within a smaller ecosystem with a considered view then presented to the world. The corporate world is much more open as there are no laws governing secrets. The result: Finger-pointing sessions that eventually results in some poor junior employee getting the boot. Make no mistake… Nick Leeson and Rajat Guptas are a rare breed!

Coach Marshall Goldsmith has a few solutions to temper this finger-pointing exercise and focus instead on learning from the error and moving forward. And his first lesson is to ‘Judge Less; Help More’ (Read the post).

For, those who want to walk the talk may point to a problem and say “I screwed up”. The rest  would merely shrug our shoulders and agree that ‘You screwed up”.

As for those whose lives got impacted by these screw-ups, well… they are the ones who actually get screwed because the blame game seldom produces positive results! And if anyone thinks blame is equal to accountability… think again after reading this post.

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