“When a man points a finger at someone else, he should remember that four of his fingers are pointing at himself.” — Louis Nixer, noted American trial lawyer.
“I never yet heard man or woman much abused that I was not inclined to think the better of them, and to transfer the suspicion or dislike to the one who found pleasure in pointing out the defects of another.” — Jane Porter, nineteenth century Scottish novelist and dramatist.
Few of us truly appreciate criticism, because no matter how valid or constructive, it can be embarrassing or annoying (especially when someone fails to offer a solution to the perceived problem). Poking holes in something is much easier than repairing them—yet most critics don’t let that stop them. Hence the saying, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; those who can’t teach, criticize.”
If an error is definitely your fault, you should correct it. But it’s too easy to point fingers when something simply seems awry, or when a problem’s cause remains uncertain. Where’s the sense in that? Rather than playing the blame game, step forward with a solution. Implement these tips consistently, and you’ll become known as a fixer rather than a finger-pointer.
1. Take the initiative. Often, workers duck responsibility not from complacency, but because management discourages or punishes initiative. But there may come a time when you have no choice but to go above and beyond the call of duty, for everyone’s sake. Peter Drucker once pointed out that people who don’t take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year; whereas people who do take risks make…about two big mistakes a year. Before you take that risk, however, make sure you’re already doing your assigned job well. It won’t look good if you excel in your new shiny initiative if your regular job responsibilities fall to ruin.
2. Accept responsibility. The A-word—accountability—scares many workers, especially time-markers and campers. But if something goes wrong and it was your fault, admit it, take your lumps, and move on. Yes, you may suffer if you work in a punitive environment. But no matter what happens, such mistakes represent learning experiences—and we all make them.
3. Help others accept responsibility. As a leader, responsibility for your team’s actions ultimately falls to you. But you can’t accept all the blame any more than you can take all the credit; actions have consequences. In other words, while you should indeed be a fixer, if you fix everything, no one will ever learn from their mistakes. If people consistently cause problems and blame others for their failures, call them on the carpet and discuss ways for them to repair their deficiencies. Make it clear they need to take responsibility for their actions and explore why the problems keep recurring. They may just need some training or mentoring. You may also discover they don’t understand their job properly. Perhaps they honestly believe they’re not to blame when things go wrong. If so, immediately clarify and document their job responsibilities.
4. Encourage engagement. While most people don’t blame others for their mistakes just because they can, many don’t care enough to do their best work. This makes it easy to point fingers at this or that process when things misfire. When workers feel empowered, they take greater ownership of their jobs. When they take ownership, they become emotionally invested and thus more likely to do their jobs well. This stimulates them to face up to their responsibilities and fix problems without prompting.
Constructive criticism can be useful, if it’s offered along with potential solutions. However, mere finger-pointing just wastes time, especially when everyone pointed at just points at someone else. It’s like the endless “Who Stole a Cookie from the Cookie Jar” song we sang in preschool, where the accused immediately accused someone else in the circle, who accused someone else, and so on. Instead of fighting over who stole the cookie, put a lock on the cookie jar and move on.