08 January 2010

Blame, Shame and Learning

I want to pick up on some thoughts from a sentence that I heard this morning. The sentence is: "I am less interested in placing blame than I am in learning what went wrong so we can fix these problems"* (please see the disclaimer below)

This is a worthwhile sentiment which can also be a tricky one and those who read this blog-post today will likely recognize the very "tricky" context in which it was said. The most obvious objection to this sentiment is does this mean it's perfectly OK to be sloppy, incompetent or uninterested in doing a good job? If you are not pulled up for being sloppy, incompetent or uninterested, how will you learn to do better next time? And what about those individuals who may end up unintentionally victimized by your incompetence? Don't they deserve the satisfaction of seeing you punished?

I acknowledge these objections. I acknowledge the fact that sometimes individuals have responsibilities that, for whatever reason, they are uninterested in fulfilling and which they deliberately shirk. I acknowledge that there should be consequences for irresponsibility and that people who are deliberately and willfully irresponsible should not be constantly let off the hook.

But the thing is that things do go wrong in life. There are many times when failures are systemic and the failure is not really a matter of an individual being uninterested or incompetent. Sometimes there can be systemic failure even with everyone doing their job correctly. And yet we still love to try to single out an individual on whom to place the blame, whether or not they could reasonably be said to have caused the problem or even had the power to stop it.

We are often more interested in finding a scapegoat to punish than we are in learning from our mistakes and fixing the system. I think I might go out on a limb and suggest that more often than not, we are satisfied when we have found someone to punish and we don't even bother trying to learn anything from our mistakes. Wouldn't it make a lot more sense if we put the majority of our efforts into learning from our mistakes?

I've just started a new job and there is a lot of detail involved in the training. Yesterday, a co-worker worked with me for a few hours and she caught many of the mistakes I made. And this is how I really learned: I made a mistake, she caught the mistake, asked me what was wrong, I removed the mistaken item and placed it in the correct place and moved on. I learned from this because *I* physically corrected my own mistakes. I learned from this much more than I would have learned by watching my co-worker do the job.

I think that there is theology here too. Christianity tells us that God is a God of grace, mercy and forgiveness. God is like my co-worker: catching our mistakes, asking us what we did wrong, asking us to correct our own mistakes and then helping us to learn from our mistakes so we can move on into a new future. God is not like many of us; God is not just waiting to blame and punish us with no care or thought about whether or not we have learned anything.

I want to live in a world where I can learn from my mistakes. What about you?


* Disclaimer: I am not trying to comment specifically on today's news item about the failure to catch "the Christmas bomber". I am also not trying to signal blanket or uncritical approval for everything President Obama said, says or will say. I am not interested in a partisan conversation here; I'm interested in the idea and the attitude behind this statement.


Olive Morgan said...

So glad to hear that you have a new job! I hope it will prove to be the right one for you.

J A Y B said...

Hi Pam and belated Happy New Year to you.
It is so easy to blame someone or thing else for a problem or mishap. It's good to look at what went wrong, or what you did wrong,and see where you actually fit in to that process. And then accept the blame if it was your fault, mistake or misunderstanding. Though I do not do this enough myself, I do do it. And I have also learnt to forgive myself and the other. Not easy to do if you start off with a blame the other thought pattern.
Thank you for your thought provoking blogs.

Steven Jones said...

Hi Pam

Great post - your post brings to mind an analogy that comes from the game of rugby: "Play the ball - never the man". I understand this to mean that the focus must be on the problem, not on the person. So instead of saying to someone, "you are incompetent", one would instead focus on the action / event and how that person can be helped in correcting it - similar to the way your mentor did for you.

However - and remaining with the rugby analogy - one usually needs to tackle the "man" to get to the "ball". For this reason, in rugby there are specific rules around tackles so that one's fellow player is not injured by illegal or dangerous tackles.

If only we as Christians could learn what those "rules of tackling" are when we engage with other people, by following our Lord Jesus Christ's example.

PamBG said...

Hi Steven, thanks for your post.

I agree with you that we need to know the "rules of tackling". I was thinking less about intelligent correction from a competent teacher than I was thinking about unconstructive blaming and finger-pointing.

But it just goes to show that we all come to these issues with different perspectives and we can add to the thinking from those different perspectives.