Business advice: The blame game

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By Bill Caswell

Special to Ontario Construction News

When we see injustices that appear to be beyond our control, it is all too easy to engage in the blame game and identify a culprit for all the apparent problems and consequences. Doing so lifts a load from our shoulders and imparts to us a sense that we have a better understanding of the cause. Of course, you well know that this simplistic approach will get us no closer to arriving at a workable solution.

Having just completed reading an otherwise well-written and deeply concerning book, I found the author had ruined (for me) his reasoned approach by being all too quick to blame big business for the ills he was addressing.

Poor fellow, he was giving the cleverness of big business far too much credit. Directors and executives do not sit around the board table wondering how they can take money away from or otherwise screw the little guy. At least in my 50 years in the business trenches, partaking in hundreds of board meetings, I never have heard of any plot or negative references to the little guy. The businessperson’s hostility, if any, was usually directed at the competition: How can we outsmart them?  And that itself was quite rare.

The clear, unquestionable, problem described in this book was the plight of the migrants at the border between the U.S.A. and Mexico. No sensible person can fail to be concerned. The author, blaming big business and the U.S. government, seemed to aim his solution at somehow taming these groups and curbing their malpractice.

However, if we wish to fix any problem, we must get to root causes; otherwise it will not go away. Immigrants/emigrants congregate at the U.S.-Mexico border because the situation for them in their home country is intolerable. The solution-seeking should include assisting the home country to develop more agreeable living conditions – no easy task, of course.

Another, current, somewhat related book by a female author, to her credit, in listing her six-point immigrant solution program, has as her number 2 point, financial and social aid to the native countries of the more populous immigrant groups. Effectively assisting countries is possible: the U.S.’s Marshall Plan rebuilt Western Europe after its near-total destruction in WW II. However, my goal today is not  to talk about migrant solutions, but rather the related concept of blame1.

Why blame doesn’t work

In the first place, blame doesn’t work because blame, by its very nature, allocates some party to a negative—that is, inferior—status within the group involved. Not only is the act of blaming disrespectful, blaming usually fails the “Let he without sin cast the first stone” test.

Secondly, blaming someone else usually absolves the observer of any culpability for the situation and oftentimes permits no self-correction—the only person we can really control being ourselves.

Third, as noted above, solving a problem involves a number of steps. Those problem-solving steps are: clearly defining the problem; assigning a group to resolve it; ensuring that the group includes a sufficient number of the  right stakeholders for the issue; making sure that the group has among them the power to do something about the issue;2 looking at all practical ramifications of the problem, including getting down to the root causes; prioritizing the sub-issues; and working on the sub-issues one at a time, which leads to a solution of the major issue. Does blaming contribute to any of these steps?

Ridiculousness of blame

Blaming is just plain silly. As noted above, while blaming business for the ills of migration may appeal to a mind that is not knowledgeable about business, in the final analysis, a business can’t be preoccupied with issues that do not affect it directly. Businesses cannot afford the luxury of a digression. That is because of the “5 % Profit Constraint” that they must live under.3

I recall the public protest against high gasoline prices a decade or so ago, aimed at Standard Oil. Somehow the public assumed that hundreds, if not thousands, of oil companies could agree among themselves on an oil price to make the public suffer. It is hard enough to get two companies to agree on anything, let alone a group.

Then oil prices dropped (due to supply-and-demand factors) and the public noise declined. This past year when we consumers enjoyed the lowest oil prices in ages, it follows from this sort of thinking that the public should have been saying: “Thank you, oil companies, for being so nice to us.” I don’t recall hearing that.

Another blame target is the wealthy: as if the wealthy people were all in a club conspiring against the poor. People arrive at wealth because they become involved in a personally advantageous situation. It might evolve from being the son who inherited a business from Dad; or the student of a new technology finding that the public trend falls directly into his field of expertise; or a lottery winner.

These are ordinary people like you and me, all of whom have won a sort of lottery. Their focus is on themselves, not on the poor; the plot-against-the-poor idea simply doesn’t make any sense.

A caring society understands the luck of the draw of being rich or being poor and the majority elects its government to try to make things more equal. The building of a city’s $10 billion subway system, for example, benefits the poor, since the middle class and rich prefer the convenience of their automobiles for local travel in most cities. The government attempts to equalize by taxing the rich more heavily than the poor, and by subsidizing the very poor. Some governments are more successful in this equalization endeavour than others.

Mathematics deems that some sort of government intervention is necessary, otherwise all the wealth will end up in the hands of a few (a situation seen not only today, but in Roman times and in Aztec societies of thousands of years ago).4 The dream of wealth equality (without intervention) remains an impractical fantasy.

More downsides to blaming

Besides the obvious shortcomings of blaming mentioned above, in a blaming environment, people will:

  • Hide mistakes
  • Fail to take the risk to innovate
  • Choose not to co-operate
  • Find themselves unwilling to trust others
  • Waste time and mislead by beating around the bush
  • Choose not to take personal responsibility; that is, avoid taking their own direct action to resolve the issue

Taking action

Talk is cheap. The question is: What are you going to do about the situation that you have deemed inappropriate? What can the little guy do? Governments rise and fall because single individuals vote them in or out. While my vote seems of little consequence, there is no doubt that all of our votes mean a lot.

So, the point is that you should take action to relieve the situation using the talents and capabilities that you have personally. What action? Send $10 to the cause; write an article; mail a letter to your senator; vote for the Green party; express your feelings through a protest group; recruit people to your noble purpose. That is, do what you can within your personal control. You can and should—but, for goodness’ sake, avoid the blame game!

Good luck.

1An associate, on reading a draft of these notes, asked: “Since CCCC has a record of 100 per cent success in solving problems around the globe, could CCCC solve this migrant problem?” The answer is “yes”; however, with one very big “if”’: If the conflicting parties agree to the CCCC problem-solving rules that entail respectful behaviour toward the opponent and having, at the table, the persons with authority or power on each side to take steps to enact the arrived-at solutions.

2 Of course, you, as prime minister, can’t attend every problem session of the country, but you can delegate the responsibility and assure your delegate that you will enact whatever agreement the delegate comes home with.

3 The 5% Profit Constraint is that when a business has profits above five per cent, new competitors, attracted by the high profits, flood into the arena, forcing the prices down to a level close to five per cent profits. On the other side, if profits are less than five per cent, a business usually lacks the funds to move forward.

4 The CCCC newsletter, Winners and Losers, March 2020 (#186), points out the mathematics developed jointly (by U. of Maryland, Boston U., Tufts U., the Sorbonne in Paris, and Saha Institute in India). The mathematics demonstrated how wealth, irrespective of how earned or spent, or the financial starting point, will result, finally, with all the wealth in the hands of a few. It came up with a precision of 0.3 per cent when used year by year over a span of 27 years in the U.S. and Europe.

Bill Caswell leads the Caswell Corporate Coaching Company (CCCC) in Ottawa, www.caswellccc.com or email bill@caswellccc.com.

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