4 Essential Leadership Principles For Addressing Victim Mentality

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Most leaders recognize victim mentality when they see it.[i] It is characterized by the blaming of others for one’s own failure or disappointing results.

Perhaps you’ve heard statements like, “Management always does this;” “Management never does that;” “If leadership didn’t always do [something not-so-flattering] we wouldn’t even be in this position;” or my personal favorite, “None of my other bosses ever had a problem with me.”

While recognition is an important first step, the vital question is: do you know how to deal with these scenarios? Here are 4 principles to keep in mind as you address victim mentality:

1. Understand your role and responsibility. Too often leaders fail to define their role—and their boundaries. This creates unnecessary anxiety and stress. I’m often surprised at the number of leaders who carry unnecessary strain and tension.

The best leaders—the healthiest ones—have learned to carry the right responsibilities, not those that others should carry. Dealing with a victim mentality starts with healthy boundaries.

2. Resist the Superhero urge. While addressing victim mentality, the leader will see opportunities to lower the tension and “come to the rescue” of those they hold accountable by absolving them of their responsibility. But this doesn’t help! I’ve met many leaders who had a history of enabling others to persist in a state of “victimhood.” These leaders believed that by “rescuing” others they were, in fact, helping them. It rarely (if ever) turns out well for the individual or the organization.

There’s a better way: by asking questions that focus on the underlying issue, a leader provides the context (and the time) for the “victim” to reflect. In best-case scenarios, when a leader asks questions it generates self-reflection within the “victim.” This self-reflection leads to self-awareness, which in turn leads to an acceptance of one’s situation, and finally a commitment to a productive next step.

If the leader plays superhero and tries to solve the problem, he or she unintentionally validates the victim mindset. It reinforces the false notion that “my problems are because of other people’s actions; I’m powerless to solve my own challenges and I need someone to rescue me.” And so the cycle continues.

Encouraging self-awareness and building responsibility takes time: don’t be discouraged if a “victim’s” self-awareness doesn’t increase the first time you try using adaptive questions. It probably won’t. Which is why you should:

3. Expect blame shifting and disruption. Be prepared for a few unexpected twists and turns in the conversation. When faced with an opportunity to take responsibility for their own lives, “victims” frequently stir up chaos around them. Creating confusion is their fallback strategy to effectively avoid responsibility and to hide from accountability.

When taking the posture of a victim, the individual will continue to blame different people (or company processes) until they find one that sticks. If this strategy is successful, any conversation ends up being an adventure in missing the point.

Given this, it is important that the leader constantly reframe the issue back to the individual’s responsibility to choose his or her own way forward within the constructs of the organization’s mission, values, and strategy.

The reframe must always put the onus on the individual to make a decision. The leader should never make the decision unless it is time to sever the working relationship.

At every step, it’s critical that the leader:

4. Wait. Waiting is critical when addressing a victim mentality.

When I was a Boy Scout (age thirteen), I learned how to rappel down a cliff. I’ll never forget (after all harnesses and carabiners were in place) standing with my heels at the edge of a massive cliff. At that point my troop leader nonchalantly said, “Lean back.” My adolescent brain heard these instructions and thought: what in the H – E – double-hockey-sticks did he tell me to do?

Every bone, every muscle, every tendon in my body screamed, Whatever you do, Chris Joyner, do not lean back! Just as it is counter-intuitive for a teenager to lean back over a cliff’s edge, it is counter-intuitive for us as leaders to pause, to wait.

Difficult conversations are characterized by uncomfortable, tension-filled periods of silence that require the leader to be a non-anxious presence. The common thread among all four principles is the leader’s ability to be patient and stay focused on the foundational issue.

As a leader, patience and focus are possible only when you understand your own role and responsibility, resist the urge to rescue, and expect multiple iterations of blame shifting.

Ultimately, throughout the conversation, you must refrain from filling the space and allow silence to do the heavy lifting.

For most of us, dealing with this type of challenge is far from enjoyable. These situations offer a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate values and leadership principles to our teams and organizations. In my experience, authentically demonstrated values and principles build rapport and credibility in ways that words and slogans cannot.

So, why is any of this important?

So, why is any of this important? Our best employees are watching! They are paying attention to the team member who is unprofessional, comes in late, leaves early, shirks responsibility, and shifts blame to others. If the leader does not address these dysfunctions, even the best employees can become bitter.

In tight labor markets, your highest performers have many options. Your competitors will try to entice them to join their organization. Creating a culture of healthy accountability—characterized by non-anxious engagement with the victim mentality—is perhaps the most critical element to retaining your best employees.

Skillful leadership will retain hard-working team players while appropriately dealing with those who are hostile to other team members and the organization’s mission. If done well, you will improve the performance of marginal employees and demonstrate to your best employees that “victims” are not rewarded.

[i] Because “victim mentality” is such a loaded phrase, I want to be clear about two things regarding the context of this article. First, there are real victims in our communities and around the world that need to be rescued. These are not the “victims” to which I refer in this article. I am discussing those who position themselves as victims in the workplace. Secondly, I have taken the victim posture in my own life many times. The people who have served me best utilized the principles I discuss in this article to draw me out of that posture into healthier functioning.

At Joyner Advising Group, our mission is to Help Forward-Looking Leaders Create Alignment. Click here to learn more about how we can partner with you.

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