What it is like to work with people who blame everyone and everything but themselves

One movie scene made a lasting impression on me. In “A few good men” Jack Nicholson screams, provoked by Tom Cruise in court, “You want the truth?!? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!”

I know someone whose colleagues, family members and friends say: “Some things we just don’t say to her, because she can’t handle the truth.” When someone dares to give any kind of criticism, she gets really mad, ignores that person fully for days or weeks, and ultimately bans them from her life, bad-mouthing them to others. Effectively it has taught people close to her not to give any kind of personal feedback, or bring up any other version of the truth than hers. While the list of alienated co-workers, family members and friends is growing, she’s become disappointed and bitter because people are not honest with her. She feels betrayed when they say things behind her back and not to her face.

Over the years I’ve met several people like that, who ‘can’t handle the truth’ when it comes to any form of criticism. Even constructive feedback given in the most empathic, subtle, warm and caring manner, bounces off their shell. Of course nobody likes being criticized. However, most of us realize we need to incorporate feedback, to see what we can improve next time. Some people won’t accept criticism at first, but after brooding about it for a few days they work on it after all. But once in a while you’ll encounter someone who just can’t handle the truth about themselves. They  display several (or all) of the following behaviors:

  • When something goes wrong, they will say it is somebody else’s fault. Even if they obviously were the person making the mistake, they twist it into being a result from another person’s action. For example: they get irritated in traffic with a slow car, race to overtake it, and hit a pedestrian. They don’t blame themselves: if the driver in front of them hadn’t been so slow, it wouldn’t have happened.
  • They talk condescendingly about successful colleagues. They say: ‘They were just lucky, because they’re really not that good.’ Or ‘They must have achieved it in an unethical way, because just on their own they would never have gotten that far.’
  • They don’t reflect critically on their own behavior, and therefore don’t make changes to improve. In their mind it’s not necessary, because if something doesn’t work out the way they wanted it, it was either the other person’s fault, or it was just an unhappy coincidence.
  • To be able to stick to their ‘there’s nothing wrong with me’ attitude, they have to lie, or distort the truth. When confronted with objective information which shows they are not perfect, they either deny it, make up an explanation, or just make up their own version of the truth. For example, when they don’t get a promotion, they say it was offered but they declined. They might also claim they got a bonus or an excellent appraisal (when they didn’t), to create a successful impression.
  • They do not only ignore or ban people who criticize them, they actively undermine the credibility of people saying things they don’t like, to curb the impact of that person on others.

People with these behaviors have a strong self-serving bias, whereby people consistently subscribe their successes to their own skills, behavior and personality, and their failures to circumstances (or others). The bias is common, most people have it to a certain extent. Research has shown that this effect increases when someone’s self-image is threatened. So, when someone has an extreme self-serving bias, probably he or she is very insecure. This might not be so obvious to others, as their behavior often comes across as arrogant or self-assured. They are not: people with genuine self-confidence don’t need to blame or attack others to feel good about themselves.

Although it is difficult to manage people who can’t handle the truth about themselves, there are a few things you can try:

  • The best way is to identify what they’re insecure about, and address that. Have a good, empathic conversation about their insecurities, and help them build up their self-confidence. Make sure you tell them what’s going well (don’t overdo it, just be realistic). If it doesn’t work, suggest professional help.
  • Be consistent, factual and specific in your feedback. They will use any unclarity in feedback to dismiss it.
  • Identify whether certain situations, or a certain role, increases their negative behavior. These situations probably feel threatening to their self-image. See if you can help them through these situations, or change the circumstances.
  • Get closer to that person, and let them get to know you. The self-serving bias decreases towards people they are close with. It might become easier to have open conversations with them, after establishing more trust.

Make sure you are also attentive to the other people in the team who suffer from a colleague displaying this behavior. They can create a divisive and hostile atmosphere in the team, causing you bigger problems. Don’t let one person affect the whole team negatively. Focus on the other team members, to ensure they can function well.

If nothing works, it is better to let this person go. When people never accept well-meant constructive feedback, and even blame or sabotage others, you’re better off without them.

Five damaging cost-cutting measures and their alternatives

Almost all organizations go through tough times at least once during their lifecycle. Inevitably combined with unpopular cost-cutting measures. It often becomes necessary, for example when the organization still spends money where it’s not relevant anymore (even though it was very beneficial in the growing stages). Or when people have been allowed to slack in cost control. Many people see a cycle of increased spending followed by extreme cost cutting like a law of nature for business.

I don’t fully agree. Yes, cost-cutting measures are sometimes unavoidable. But the extreme measures many organizations take during difficult times often damage the organization’s future beyond repair. I have experienced several panic-mode decisions that should really be avoided. The five cost cutting measures below have the potential to cause damage for years. There are alternatives that will keep the damage to a minimum.

Extreme measure 1: Introduce additional authorization levels high up. For example make middle managers ask permission more than one level up for replacement of retirees or other leavers, or get new hires approved by at least three different managers. Besides giving the signal that just one manager wouldn’t be capable of making such a decision on her own, the lower level managers learn quickly to abandon all responsibility. In one organization that swore by this measure for a while, I’ve heard a top manager exasperatedly exclaim: ‘We need more entrepreneurship in this organization!’ If so, why treat your middle managers like children?
Alternative: Give people more budget responsibility, including a target to save costs. They have to get approval from their direct manager, and that should be it. Replace or fire the managers who can’t deal with that responsibility, instead of solving underperformance in this area by adding additional approval levels.

Extreme measure 2: Bring in expensive consultants that spend days interviewing employees, making spreadsheets, clinically analyzing the data, on which basis they suggest cost savings. Such consultants leave the organization with more chaos and uncertainty, by basing their conclusions on data the organization already has, but gets interpreted wrongly by outsiders who don’t know the organization at all. In calculating the cost-benefit of bringing in outsiders to tell you what to do, you need to include the decreased production, increased cost of errors, incidents, illness etc during and just after the time the consultants roamed your work floors.
Alternative: Ensure continuous improvement, in which you highly involve your employees (maybe even free some of them up for this purpose). They know the organization best, and you’ll be surprised with how much costs they can save once you give them the opportunity.

Extreme measure 3: Cancel all external training. Worse: replace it with training by internal “experts”. This is a very effective way to stimulate group-think, tunnel vision, and ensuring your organization soon only has diluted and outdated knowledge. Within two years, the organization’s competitive edge will shrink before your eyes.
Alternative: Identify what skills, knowledge, and qualities your organization needs the most, and keep external training for those areas. It’s a tougher decision than cancelling all external training, as someone will need to distinguish which training is more important, which is a shitty job. On the upside, the organization keeps up with (or stays ahead of) competitors.

Extreme measure 4: Fire several high-level managers, just to shake up the organization, make a point, or eliminate everyone seen as a threat. Popular approach especially for new top managers, recruited externally, with the assignment to shake up the organization. Their justification is that new ways of working need to be introduced, and severance payments come out of a special budget which doesn’t impact the EBIT. But the cost of upsetting a department by firing the manager, and the toll of paralyzing people into average behavior for months (if not years) to come does. Besides, the severance payments are costs nonetheless, especially if you include the cost of headhunting new people, inductions, interim managers, etc.
Alternative: Make clear to all managers what is expected of them. Establish a good communication where you frequently discuss their performance and that of their department. Good leaders can turn people around. And if someone is clearly underperforming, based on clear objectives, fire them fair and straight.

Extreme measure 5: Salary freeze for all employees. Especially if it’s for several years in a row. It can save a lot of money if you just look at the numbers. But in reality it screams ‘imminent bankruptcy’ to your employees, and has them applying for jobs to leave the sinking ship asap. It also increases the unfairness in salary distribution, as you can’t give raises to people who really deserve it or are behind.
Alternative: Demand HR to ensure a fair salary system, continuously. All big organizations have people whose salary has become too high. For example because it was never adjusted after a demotion, or several years of underperformance were not adequately addressed. Or after a merge the salary systems were not harmonized, and people in the same organization doing the same job get different pay and benefits. The unfairness of salary distribution is usually a bigger frustration with employees than the height of their own salary in itself. Address that on a continuous basis, and you don’t have to take extreme measures later on.

Not all extreme measures are wrong. For example, banning all (international) travel can work for a while. It’s okay to make people more aware of the costs of travel, and let them experience how much can be done virtually nowadays. Travel will always be necessary to a certain extent, but to stop travel for three to six months won’t damage an organization’s future.

When you are in a situation where you need to cut costs, consider very carefully whether the proposed measures aren’t damaging your organization’s future beyond repair. Have a look at the alternatives above. Most require a continuous focus on costs, which is the last important message of this post: Make sure you are on top of the important issues, and make sure your managers are on top of their budgets. Costs will get less out of hand, decreasing the chance you have to take draconic cost-cutting measures down the line.