Ever been in a group of people when a problem comes to light?
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a group of people where you work, where you live, or another social or family gathering. You will inevitably only see three reactions to the problem. Two of the responses will make up the vast majority of the group, although the exact mix will depend on the situation, and more importantly, who pointed it out.
One group will look or walk away and pretend it never happened. Remember the old TV show, Hogan’s Heroes? This is the Sargent Schultz reaction. I see nothing; I know nothing. How can they be held responsible for a problem if they didn’t know anything about it? It doesn’t matter that the problem occurred right under their noses or clearly on their watch.
These people are pretty much worthless in any crisis and can’t be counted on. But they aren’t as dangerous as the second group. At least for the most part. Some of them are closet finger pointers. They will look the other way at the moment of crises, but later, and in private, they will point fingers. Usually jumping on the band-wagon with the majority of other finger-pointers once an appropriate patsy is found.
The second group is the finger-pointers, the back-stabbers, the under-the-bus-throwers. They not only do nothing to help solve the problem; they make the situation worse and create a whole new problem. They make the problem worse by creating chaos, diverting attention away from the problem itself, and moving it on to who to blame. They start the second problem in the fact that they create divisiveness and a toxic environment. This is usually the larger problem and if not squelched will overtake any system.
Within the same group or organization, a certain number of people will always react the same way. It’s in their DNA. They will pretend they didn’t know or find someone to blame, no matter how large or small the problem. It’s an immediate and mindless reaction. Like when someone sneezes, some people will automatically respond with ‘Bless You,’ as if they have been anointed with some divine power.
A problem occurs, and a certain number of people’s heads will turn in the other direction fast enough to cause whiplash. If a group of them are together, which is likely, they will move as a herd to the next watering hole, cheerfully seeing nothing. The other group’s fingers will begin to rise as their skilled eyes scan the room for a victim. They will frequently move as one, honing in on the same fool, seemingly without communicating, like a murmuration of fingers-pointers.
But a large number will react differently depending on the situation. If it is some random problem without a source, like a toilet overflowing, they will generally fall into the ignore it group. A simple example is a husband who will gleefully step over the stack of towels sitting on the stairs all day long rather than pick them up. “You wanted these upstairs? Who knew?”
If the problem clearly should be blamed on someone, such as every problem pointed out by the boss, then the finger-pointers will come out in droves. Anything to deflect attention away from themselves while seemingly giving aid to their boss. The loudest and quickest of these is probably the person who should be responsible if not downright guilty.
But there is one group that no one pays attention to. At times it may only be one person. In other circumstances, it will be a group, albeit a small one. They won’t make much noise, and they rarely call attention to themselves. But while everyone else is being thrown under buses, walking away, or pointing fingers, this group will focus on only one thing.
Solving the problem.
In my last job, which I held for 16 years, there would be some sort of meeting every week. As an aside, there aren’t three types of meetings. No meeting was ever about solving a problem, and most meetings can’t be about ignoring a problem. Meetings were about finding someone to blame. This came from the top. In every meeting, a problem was presented. Immediately, the owner would look around and say, “Whose fault is that?” The meeting would devolve into back-stabbing and finger-pointing until the victim was identified. As soon as the fault was assigned, the meeting was over.
But I digress.
It was in these meetings that I devised a metaphor I used often and have written about before. I would usually wait until we had fresh meat.. I mean new employees. Then, I would present this scenario. Suppose the entire company is on a cruise and the boat begins to sink. The lifeboats only hold six people, but you get to choose who gets in the boat with you.
Who would you pick?
No one ever answered. Because they couldn’t. Unless you needed ballast, there weren’t six people you would want with you in a crisis. Because there weren’t six that fell into that third group. And even if there were, you couldn’t point them out. You couldn’t give them credit. If you did, they would forevermore be useless as patsies.
But here’s the thing. You get to choose. You can decide for yourself which group you belong to. And trust me, it’s not an easy choice to make. It’s difficult to break away from the herd, but it can be done. You can join that small group.
It’s not only a hard choice but one you will have to live with. Forever. Because in secret, everyone knows who is in that group. And they will be approached every time there is a problem. The approach will be made quietly and surreptitiously, but it will be made. Whether there is a meltdown at the nuclear power plant or a paper jam in the printer, someone will come to you. You may regret joining that group.
But that regret is only on the surface. Beneath that is pride. Pride in getting the job done. Satisfaction in knowing that you faced a problem, and because of that, the problem no longer exists. Don’t do it for glory; there is none. No one will acknowledge that it was you who fixed things. At least in public.
Privately the acknowledgment will come the next time there is a problem. If it is a problem, you didn’t know about it. If you knew about it, you would already be fixing it. If not, someone will give you a tap on the shoulder. “Can you take a look at this?” They always say it like that. Even while asking for your help, they need to minimize your contribution. As if a mere look will make the problem go away.
But none of that matters.
The next time you see a problem, look for that small group. Or that one person. Walk up to them and say, “What can I do to help?”