Passing the Buck Doesn’t Make You Rich


May 20, 2011

by Marshall Goldsmith

After a crisis at work, there is often a lot of finger-pointing. It’s the CEO’s fault; it’s a team member’s fault; it’s the boss’s fault. After a crisis at home, the same rule applies. Blame it on the spouse, the dog, the kids, the sprinklers. Very few people point the finger of responsibility at themselves.

How often do you hear someone say, “One of the main reasons for the problem is that I screwed up. I was really wrong on this one”? My guess is that it doesn’t happen very often. Most people feel more inclined to pass the buck than to take responsibility. The fact is, though, passing the buck doesn’t build your character or give you the opportunity to learn from your mistakes. In a nutshell, it doesn’t make you rich.

My suggestions to help you, your team, and your family eliminate finger-pointing and take responsibility in times of crisis:

1. Encourage everyone to remember four words that can help all of you in the best way possible: “Help more, judge less.” Reflect upon these words. How many of us have friends and family members at home who might be happy if we helped a little more and judged a little less?

2. Try to get people to focus on a future they can influence, not a past they cannot change anyway. Have you ever made a fool of yourself in front of important people? It was bad enough when it happened. Having others make you relive this fool-making experience rarely helps anything.

3. Try to get people to take responsibility for their own behavior. Sometimes it is easier to see our own faults in other people than to see them in the mirror. We can’t always change what other people have done, but we can certainly change ourselves.

4. Ask each person to reflect on the question “What can I learn from this crisis?” Anyone can provide leadership when times are easy. Great leaders—and great teams—step up when times are tough. Have each team member, rather than get lost in whining, focus on how he or she can grow from this experience.

5. Ask everyone to reflect on the question “What can we learn from this crisis?” After each person’s individual reflection, encourage the team to engage in collective reflection. Find ways to improve communication and build teamwork.

6. Encourage each person to avoid speaking when angry or out of control. We all get mad. That is natural and completely appropriate. We just have to hold off talking until we have a chance to settle down and collect our thoughts. Plenty of research has shown how our agitated minds can lead to irrational behavior that we later regret.

7. Before speaking, don’t just ask, “Am I correct?” Instead, ask, “Will this help?” Just because we believe that something is true doesn’t mean we have to say it. If our comment might hurt individuals or damage the team or family, it just might be better left unsaid.