On the Happier podcast, Elizabeth and I often quote our mother and father, because they both give terrific advice.
I think often of something that my father told me when I got my first real job.
He said, “If you take the blame when you deserve it, people will give you responsibility.” I’ve found that to be very true. Difficult, but true. In my experience, until someone in a group (in a job, in a family) accepts blame, everyone stays very anxious and focused on fingering the person at fault. (If you’re a fan of the TV show Succession and you watched the finale, you saw this phenomenon in action.) I’ve found that once I raise my hand (if appropriate), then everyone else can relax—and focus on what needs to be done, because no one is worried about being unjustly criticized or blamed.
I remember a time from years ago, when I was still working as a lawyer, at that time as a senior advisor to the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. I was working with a team of people who were creating an important report. The document came in, and later, at a meeting of senior people, some people severely criticized the report—said that it wasn’t done correctly, it didn’t address what it should have addressed, and so on.
Now, I had directed the people who created this report, and I’d reviewed it. And I have to admit that for a moment, I did consider staying silent, and just directing the conversation to how the report had to be changed in the next draft. In this room of senior people, I was the least senior, and I didn’t want to call attention to my mistake.
But I remembered what my father had told me, many years ago. So I spoke up. “I gave this team their directions,” I said. “They didn’t get it wrong, that’s on me. They did a good job doing what I told them to do. So let’s talk about how the report needs to change so I can give them better guidance.”
I worried that admitting this kind of mistake would harm my reputation, because I’d obviously screwed up. But just as my father said, it helped me. It showed the senior people that I could own a mistake and work to fix it. And as word drifted back to the people who had not been in the meeting (and word always does drift back), they knew that I hadn’t unfairly put the blame on them.
Also, during the meeting, I noticed that when the critics had to voice their directly criticism to me, in person, and give me direction about the way forward, those criticisms became much milder and more constructive, instead of the “Can you believe what they did?” comments they’d made before.
Instead of hurting my reputation as I’d feared, this incident had just the opposite effect.
It’s important to note that this aphorism points out that we should take the blame when we deserve the blame. This isn’t about making blanket apologies or being willing to be a punching bag, it’s about owning up to our own mistakes.
I’ve found that it’s really true. When you’re willing to take the blame when you deserve it, people will give you responsibility.