Many people are having a bad time in organizations today. It’s not simply those experiencing budget cuts and lay-offs. Many others are experiencing a deep sense of hurt and loss: loss of much of a life outside of work, loss of their hopes and expectations, loss of their trust in the future, loss of confidence in reaching their career goals. The cruelest hurt is the collective loss of belief that things will soon return to normal. In today’s cut-throat world of global competition and corporate greed, it’s hard to know what normal is.

So many losses at one time are hard to bear. When things go wrong like this, we usually get mad or we become depressed. And because we live in a “can do” society, far more people typically get mad. Anger also has a quality of energy that makes you feel that you’re doing something. Depression may follow, but at the beginning you feel buoyed up by that sense of righteous anger. Of course, to sustain your anger and resentment, you do need a target. You have to be mad at someone or something. So people look around for a suitable scapegoat to take the blame for their disappointment and unhappiness. Where do they find one? “Out there” in the world. The greedy bosses, conniving politicians, job-stealing foreigners, sly financiers, or simply those cursed computers and machines.

I’m not going to excuse those who deserve criticism. But what gets missed is how powerless you make yourself whenever you locate the causes of your hurt “out there.”

If you excuse yourself from any part in what has caused your hurt and pain, you also cut yourself off from responding in ways likely to make your life better. It may feel as if you’re doing something, but mostly you’re inside your head, imagining what you would love to do to the guilty party—if only you had the chance. Can you change Wall Street’s obsession with short-term profits? Can you you give your Tin Man of a boss a heart? And if you act out your feelings and vent your anger on someone you can get to—maybe your colleagues, your friends, or your family—you will have alienated people who might otherwise have been willing to help. Nothing else will have changed. You still have the problem; only now you have people who feel mad at you as well.

The trouble with blaming “them”—whoever “they” are—is that they are also “out there” where you have no direct control and probably little influence. While you dissipate your energy in resentful complaints and self-righteous demands, “they” are untouched.

A friend of mine has a compelling way of putting this: “Whatever you resist tends to persist.” If you direct your anger at someone, they usually fight back, turning a one-time hurt into an on-going conflict. If you blame impersonal forces, they catch your attention again and again, until it’s easy to believe they’re behind every hurt you suffer. The more you fret and fume about “them,” the more power you give “them” over your life, adding to your helplessness.

Whatever happens, you always have the power to choose your response. If you can’t change “them,” you can still change yourself.

When bad times come around, try modifying the responses and attitudes “in here”—in your mind and heart —not “out there.” What happens in our lives is a blend of external events and internal reactions, so changing how you react will always affect the outcome—maybe not completely or instantly, but quite certainly.

The next time something or someone seems to be hell bent on messing up your life, try stopping and asking yourself these questions before you launch into the usual indignant complaints:

  • “What have I done (or not done) that has contributed to this problem?”
  • “What have I been avoiding that I know I should have faced up to long ago?”
  • “What am I postponing that I know I should have done by now?”
  • “What am I blaming on others that I know is down to me?”
  • “What am I going along with that I know I should refuse?”
  • “What am I agreeing to that I know to be false?”
  • “What am I accepting that I know is selling me short?”
  • “What can I do about the things I’ve just discovered?”

Ask the questions in a spirit of curiosity, with a genuine interest in the answers. Don’t add to your guilt or try to beat yourself up over what you find. Guilt is a worthless emotion and beating yourself up changes nothing. The purpose of this exercise is to help you break through the automatic habit of pushing blame “out there.”

Only when can you see clearly what in your actions or attitudes has contributed to the problem can you discover what you can do that will have some chance of producing change. We’ve all done our share of blameworthy things; we’ve all been the innocent victims of circumstance—then made things worse by our response. As long as you deny accountability for your part in how your life has turned out, you’re held fast in pain and loss. Let go of your baggage and move on.

One of the greatest threats we face today is the relentless increase in global whining. Instead, conserve your energy for the positive task of confronting setbacks and exploring fresh ways to move forward. Don’t let anger and scapegoating others make you helpless. Change what you can and work with what you cannot. If you are honest with yourself, you will be surprised just how much falls into the first category and how little into the second.

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Adrian Savage is a freelance writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His new book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization, is now available at all good bookstores.

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