Different Rules – Credit vs. Blame

Posted on July 5, 2013


Those of you who know me (and those who have read my bio) know that I was a banker for 25 years.  In 2001 and 2002, I was a market sales manager for the North San Diego market of a large bank.  The market consisted of about 40 branches led by a consumer market executive and myself.  In 2001, it seemed we could do no wrong.  Everything we touched turn to gold and we finished the year with the number one market in the state.  Wherever we went, people wanted to talk to us, get our input on issues, and generally find out what we were doing that made us so successful.  Every committee and task force wanted to talk to us.  We were generally regarded as brilliant leaders.  In 2002, we did not fare nearly so well.  As so often happens in a corporate environment, no good deed goes unpunished.  Goals went up (commensurate with our performance), and additionally, our market took a couple of large operating losses.  Suffice it to say, our opinion was no longer sought by other markets.  The same two guys were running the market.  Last year, we were regarded as the best leaders in the state.  Now we did not look nearly as smart.  My position was that when we were at the top of the heap we were not that much smarter than everyone else and when we were closer to the bottom we were not that dumb.  There were some aspects of our performance that were within our control for which we should receive credit (or blame) and some that were just the circumstances.

For the last few weeks[1], I have been looking at our tendency to assign credit or blame either to ourselves or to people and circumstances outside of ourselves.  My assertion has been that each of us has a basic bent somewhere on a continuum between always looking at ourselves as the cause of what happens in our lives at one end of the continuum and always looking at others and our circumstances.  My position is that the health is in avoiding the extremes.  Taking control and responsibility for one’s life and those things one controls is important.  Not taking ownership of things beyond one’s control is also important.

To add one final wrinkle to this treatise, I would suggest that for some of us, we apply a different standard when assigning credit when things go right then we do for assigning blame when things go wrong.  Additionally, we can apply different rules when looking at ourselves than when we look at others.  This too can be problematic in our lives.  There is an old cliché that states that “management is taking less than your share of the credit and more than your share of the blame.”  That may be a good leadership behavior to get people to follow you.  At the same time, I would suggest that it is opposite from the natural tendency that many people have.  People seem to come out of the woodwork when things are going well in hopes of claiming some of that success, and flee the scene when something bad happens for fear some of getting splashed with some of the blame.

But this is not a blog about management, leadership, corporate politics, or job performance.  It is primarily about relationships, and I want you to have healthy ones.  It can be detrimental to relationships if you apply substantially different rules to credit for the good and blame for the bad.  First, if we are applying this attribution tendency specifically to difficulties in your relationship, whatever you don’t own you are essentially pushing onto your partner.  There is an old joke that says that the man who can smile when things go wrong has thought of someone he can blame it on.  If that someone is your partner, over time, it is damaging to the emotional connection that holds your relationship together.  Often when couples come to therapy, each partner is initially regarding the other as the cause of the relationship problems.  The reality is that the source of the relationship distress is generally negative patterns of interaction that are fueled by legitimate attachment needs; essentially, they are failed attempts by each partner to get their needs met.  Second, it can be draining on the partner and on the relationship when one partner regularly lives at the extreme of either owning all blame or denying all blame for difficulties.  Just as an aside, owning less than your share of responsibility is common with addiction.  Owning more than your share is common with codependence.  But I digress.  In the extremes, whether your partner can never own responsibility for mistakes or beats himself or herself up (metaphorically speaking), it can be difficult to maintain emotional intimacy and problem solve effectively.  Third, it is also difficult when the successes are either owned completely as due to my greatness or completely rejected as caused by something outside of myself.

If you are wondering about this and if it applies to you, your partner may have some good insight into that (after all, he or she lives with you and has a good view to your patterns).  If the thought that you might have a part in aspects of your situation that you wish were different is just too painful, that might give you an idea that this could be an area to work on.  Conversely, if you blame yourself for situations in which you truly were victimized, that can be problematic as well.  When we work with people struggling with addiction, we frame recovery as a ruthless commitment to reality.  The same concept applies here.  The goal is to deal with the reality, take action on the things that are within your control, make peace with the things that are beyond your control, and be real about both, both in your own mind and in your relationships.  It is healthy to be congruent when assigning credit and responsibility to yourself.  Within your relationships, you can only control you and you cannot control your partner.[2]  All of this takes courage, and it takes wisdom.

[1] I promise that this is the last post on this topic and I will move on.

[2] You will only make both you and your partner crazy by trying to control your partner.