As you may have figured out, I have a “thing” about accountability – I happen to believe it’s one of the most important character traits a person can possess. I even wrote a whole article about it (see?). So I fully acknowledge that when I address the topic of victim mentality, I have a bit of an agenda. Okay, disclaimer out of the way. Let’s do this!
Most of us have been “blessed” with the experience of watching someone play the victim – “It’s not my fault.” “He’s just out to get me.” “That’s not fair.” “I wanted to give you a raise, but they wouldn’t let me.” The fascinating part about it is that the victim mentality knows no boundaries. From the fresh-out-of-school entry-level clerk to the tenured CEO, anyone can take refuge in the sanctuary of the victim mentality. Um…yay?
The tragedy of the victim mentality is that it quickly becomes a way of life for people. Why? Because it works. It allows managers to avoid tough conversations because now it’s someone else’s fault and the employee can’t be mad at them. It allows employees to avoid taking responsibility because now everything was out of their control and it’s not fair to blame them. And the rest of us let them get away with it because it’s easier to just say “fine” and secretly resent them than it is to call them on it, all the while moping that you’re the only one who seems to do anything around here…thereby perpetuating the victim mentality.
- If you’re listening to your employee or a peer play the victim: First, try not to roll your eyes. Were you successful? Good! Now you can empathize (but don’t sympathize!). Acknowledge that from their perspective, you could see it might feel like they were a victim (don’t say it that way – tailor your phrasing to the words they’re using). Then you might start asking some probing questions, such as, “Did they explain to you why it was important to meet the deadline?” Or perhaps, “So when you read through all the fine print, did it not outline the penalties for early cancellation?” Basically, you’re helping the other person see that they had some ownership, too. Don’t be a smartass, though – that doesn’t work out well.
- If you’re listening to your manager play the victim: Oy…what to do? This one is tough, no question. If you have a good relationship with your boss, you might be able to use humor to point out how silly they’re being. (No, really, this works…as long as you trust each other). Many times, all you can do is nod politely and say, “wow”. Once your boss is done complaining, ask an action-oriented question, such as, “So what I can I do to help you move this forward/solve the problem/support you?” Sometimes that’s enough to snap them out of it and get them in the right mindset attain. Again – don’t be a smartass. Just sayin’.
- If it’s you playing the victim (non-manager role): Stop it. (Need more? Sheesh.) Self-awareness goes a long way towards changing any behavior, so become a little more introspective about your complaining. What’s your inner monologue say? Is there a lot of finger-pointing, “they”, or “fairness” creeping in? Ask yourself, “What did I do that contributed to this outcome?” and acknowledge your role in the situation. If you can’t seem to do that, ask a friend to play devil’s advocate to help you learn from the experience and break your victim habits. Hopefully, they won’t be a smartass.
- If you’re playing the victim (manager role): The most common issue I see in this case is from a manager who won’t own the message. It might be that a policy has rolled out that they don’t entirely agree with, or they didn’t address an employee’s performance until someone else noticed the issue and said to deal with it – whatever it might be, some managers try to soften the blow by siding with the employees against a common enemy (usually “leadership” or the ever-popular “HR”). Here’s the thing – the moment you use the word “they”, you have completely abdicated your authority and credibility to someone else. Why should your employees see you as a leader if you let someone else push you around? My advice is that you learn when to fight (not in front of your employees) and when to support (in front of your employees). You don’t have to agree with everything you’re asked to roll out; but you need to ensure you are aligned with the company and can send a consistent message. Learn why a decision was made, and figure out a way to communicate that decision without tipping your hand to either support or discontentment. Not sure how? Start listening to upper management roll out new policies. No, not every policy change is a winner, but your employees are looking to you for cues on how to act. If you’re a victim, they will be, too.
Will there be times in your life when you actually are a victim? Yes. So why not save all that energy for use when the situation calls for it, and not when you forgot to mail in your payment? The reality is, your inner monologue contributes to your reality – if you think you’re a victim, you ARE a victim. Wouldn’t you rather be the one running your life? I know I would.
If it’s never our fault, we can’t take responsibility for it. If we can’t take responsibility for it, we’ll always be its victim.
– Richard Bach
Got a good technique for overcoming a victim mentality? Or just have a funny victim story to share? Post it in the comments!