When I was a teenager I had an answer for everything.

I was relatively quick witted (well so I thought) and was able to respond to changing social situations.

On one occasion I was engaged in a semi-heated discussion with my parents, who were challenging me on my lack of commitment to my schooling. I had developed a number of unresourceful habits and had become lazy with some of my subjects. Simply put, I was enjoying partying with my friends and was relying too heavily on my ability to talk my way out of situations (often without any level of substance or depth of thought).

My parents had read the play and were applying pressure on me to be the best that I could be. They wanted me to be able to capitalise on opportunities afforded with my capabilities. I wanted to take the path of least resistance.

They would ask a question and I would provide an excuse. They would ask another question and I would repeat the process. For me it was such an easy and seductive lure to be able to redirect their questions towards other parties, people or systems as opposed to taking the full brunt of accountability associated with poor decisions.

At one point in the discussion my Dad said “how convenient when it is always someone else’s fault.”

I didn’t have an answer. It stopped me in my tracks. He had hit the bullseye and I had no retort.

As it turned out I met them in the middle, applying a slightly increased level of performance and focus (in order to reduce their ever-watchful eye), and I achieved the desired grades to be able to progress into a career of my choice.

With the benefit of hindsight and experience it is evident that my parents had my best interests at heart and were voluntarily engaged in an uncomfortable conversation, to ensure that I didn’t head towards a path of unnecessary turmoil.

The rest is history…

Moving Forward

Fast forward in time.

I now work with people and organisations all around the world.

I routinely engage in uncomfortable conversations with people about their personal/professional development, career progression and leadership understanding.

When conducting introductory conversations with people, what stands out to me immediately is their willingness to accept accountability for their circumstances, or not.

Not surprisingly, those that have reached out for coaching or education support are often individuals whom have exhausted their current resources and understanding, and have capitulated. This is not true in all cases, but is evident in most. Simply put, the individual or the team have tried everything they can think of. It hasn’t worked. And, now they are open to new ideas or alternatives.

When this occurs a conversation ensues. From their end, they are exploring and testing to see whether I am someone who has any additional tricks up my sleave that might help them get through this dark patch.

From my perspective, I am hunting for information that will determine if this is a person (or team) that is just going through the paces, or is genuinely trying to help themselves.

The process requires a great deal of open-ended exploratory questions. All of which are geared towards trying to determine their truth, but more importantly determine the degree to which they accept accountability. After hundreds of iterations, I know relatively early whether I am dealing with someone who is just going through the paces, or they are genuinely open to confronting and new ideas that might lead them to different conclusions and outcomes.

The first indicators come in the form of language.

Some start by detailing their story. Their story is constantly fractured by statements like:

·       “I couldn’t do anything because they were a bunch of jerks”

·       “They made me do ______”

·       “They did _____ to me”

Now this has to be closely managed, because some people have experienced some incredibly unfair, unreasonable and unequitable things. Things which can change a person. Fair enough!

But, the distinction lies in the way they frame situations.

For example, Person A might frame their situation by saying:

“I have found myself in a situation which I know is not working for me. I am experiencing tough times in my family life, my job, and my health. I am keen to see where the opportunities exist in order to change what I can in order to head towards a better trajectory.”

This is a world apart from Person B:

“I just got fired from my job because they couldn’t handle the information I was telling them. I don’t think they could deal with the fact that I knew what was going on and they didn’t. My partner is being a real jerk about it too and they are just siding with the business. Everyone else doesn’t just get me and the fact that I know what I am talking about threatens them.”

Now you might think that I am dramatizing for effect. I am not.

Conversations like these are part and parcel with the operating environment for someone in my profession.

Sometimes it is more subtle and nuanced. Sometimes it isn’t.

With more open-ended questions more context emerges.

The context and the personality of the person will determine whether coaching is a viable option, or not. Sometimes it isn’t and this must be explained to the individual or the organisation.

“Ninety-nine percent of all failures come from people who have a habit of making excuses.”

-George W Carver-

One of my mentors once explained to me, ‘you cannot change someone’s mind. All you can do is provide additional information that might lead them to a different conclusion.’

In subsequent years I have added my own expansions to the end of this suggesting that the way we deliver the information will significantly affect the likelihood of it being received well or not. But at the end of the day, the buck lies with the individual.

Someone who has adopted a blame mindset is virtually impossible to help. Anything that goes well is attributed to them and their selfless and well-led efforts. Anything that goes poorly, was due to others, the environment, or changes in circumstance.

Sadly, these people find themselves subtly ostracised as people try and distance themselves from their draining and negative energy. We can understand why.

When it becomes evident that a person has adopted this mindset, I too am left with choices. I can accept this person’s money and attempt to guide them to a different conclusion (sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t). Or, I can call it at the moment of identification. I can say something similar to “has it ever occurred to you that in all of your stories, you are the only single point of consistency throughout each of them?”

When you ask a question like this people will do one of two things. They will either attack, or they will consider the information. Those that attack are rarely good candidates for coaching. Those that consider have hope yet.

Let me make this explicitly clear:

  • Those that adopt a blame mindset are destined to become lonely. People have limited patience for those who have no interest in acknowledging their transgressions. The novely wears off very quickly.
  • People who adopt an accountability mindset (not to be confused with a guilt mindset) lay the foundations for the most significant and influential leaders.
  • Blame mindset is a temporary moral band aid that doesn’t stop the septic effects of poor decisions and character. There is a price to pay for such decisions.
  • Some people have had incredibly hard lives and have endured great unfairness. This said, within these scenarios the only means to empower the individual to move forward is to enable them to ascertain their own choices in identifying and preventing (or avoiding) emerging scenarios moving forward. This should never be confused with victim blaming, it is quite literally the opposite.
  • Those that adopt a blame culture are metaphorically shooting themselves in the foot. They cannot be trusted to represent people from their teams, in forums where they cannot represent themselves. People will identify this and then walk away.
  • Leaders build cultures centred around accountability. This doesn’t work if it is always someone else’s fault.

“At some point the blame game stops and the accountability start.”

-Jonathan Clark-

Context vs Excuses

Within this discussion there is an important distinction to make between ‘excuses’ and ‘context’.

Excuses are utilised as a means of redirecting blame to another source.

Context is geared towards capturing ‘the truth’ and explaining some of the considerations that led to someone decision.

The key point being, one is geared towards blaming someone/something else, the other is leveraged towards explaining how we arrived at making our own decision (but we still made the decision).


Be careful who you spend your time with. It is a decision in your investment of time. If you hang around people who shirk blame and adopt a victim mentality, it wont be long until you begin adopting the same behaviours and thoughts. It is a choice at the beginning of the path, choose wisely.

I make no apologies about filtering who I do and do not let into my professional and personal spheres.

If someone does not have the moral character to consider the validity of making improved choices, on the foundation of lessons learn from previous ones – Then we are at a vales cross roads. One which will send us on different paths.

If we genuinely want to empower people, then we need to make them feel like they have choices and their choices matter. We need to make them feel like the world in its entirety is not just happening to them. We need to illustrate how powerful they are (and can be). We need to show them how much they have learned through their previous experiences (despite being arduous, unfair, and challenging). Only then, do we see people truly level up and move forward in the world, protected by a sheet of armour forged in accountability and lessons learned.

To do the opposite is to send them down a path of learned helplessness with a trajectory and outcome that is not too difficult to predict.

Be honest with yourself and others. Wear your failures and lessons learned as a badge of pride. Let it strengthen your reputation and character.

If this article has been of interest to you please consider stopping by our Company blog.

David Neal Is a leader, strategist, founder, project and change manager, as well as a practical consultant for clients such as the ADA NSW, University of Sydney, Australian Defence Force, Prescare, RSL Queensland, MedReleaf, and KPMG. ​He is one of the authors of ‘Growing Good Leaders’ which focuses on developing high performing teams and running projects. He travels throughout Australia and overseas helping others to simplify the complex. His time serving in the military has provided him with vast experience in leadership, complex problem solving, project and risk management. He has chosen mateship, family and helping good people as his path.

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