how quick other people were to blame me for my goofiness, rather than try to help me figure out what I could have done better. Typically, after a mistake (our own, or other people’s), we usually pin the blame on one person or event. One of my memorable examples of casting blame happened when I was an eight-year-old growing up on the streets of New York City. One day while walking my dog “Pockets,” a frisky canine known in the neighborhood as “Zeus” (I’ve changed the names to protect the innocent) mounted Pockets and gave her what I described to my mother at the time as a “doggy hug.” I paid no attention to this embrace even though a neighbor had to douse both dogs with a bucket of water to separate the pair. A few months later my Mom and I were gifted with a glorious litter of 10 mongrel pups. I was immediately blamed for Pocket’s impregnation. I now realize that my Mom should have taken at least some responsibility for the litter because she neglected to have Pockets spayed in the first place! My mother failed to acknowledge how her omission contributed to the escalating puppy population.
How to Avoid Blame
Blaming others isn’t limited to angry moms though: Try Googling “who is to blame” and over seventy million topics will appear in the automatic search bar, from determining who was responsible for the “election of Donald Trump” to calculating reasons for “the soaring cost of cauliflower.” Successful people don’t worry about blame—they instead focus on improving performance. When I wrote the textbook Motivation for Learning and Performance, I interviewed many successful people for examples of motivated behavior. One of the approaches frequently used by celebrities like Emmy-winning actress Cheryl Hines, Kansas City Chiefs’ Hall-of-Fame kicker Nick Lowery, and Congressman Darren Soto was a diligent focus on learning from mistakes. Each of these people expected to occasionally fail; instead of feeling inadequate or defensive when they did fail, they chose to leverage their errors and make changes when approaching their the next challenge. The Coach Hack teaches you not to blame others, and it also reminds you not to blame yourself. Harsh self-criticism doesn’t help you grow; it paralyzes you. Instead, the Coach Hack tells you to reframe mistakes as learning opportunities, shifting your focus off blame and onto revising your strategies for future success.
A thinking bias underpins our impulse to cast blame instead of focus on post-error improvement. A primary human motive is the need to understand why things happen. In prehistoric times, gaps in causal knowledge could kill you: Knowing why things happened (why your daughters were kidnapped or what caused plants to grow) was essential for longevity and procreation. Millions of years later, we still look for causes, but these days it’s for psychological survival: We want to justify our actions and feel good about ourselves. We like to see ourselves as responsible for good outcomes, but we like to blame others for poor outcomes. If a speeding driver zooms past, do you think “Oh, that poor woman must be rushing home to care for her sick child”? Or do you think “What’s wrong with that damn nincompoop?” We perpetuate the attribution bias when we justify our own behavior and criticize the behavior of others.
In addition to helping correct the attribution bias, the Coach Hack boosts performance by encouraging us to seek out and accept objective feedback. If we don’t understand why things went wrong, we can’t make corrections and default to blaming. The famous people I interviewed all shared a second behavior pattern: each person relied on feedback from a respected source to keep them focused, provide improvement suggestions, and guide them through motivational lapses. If it weren’t for Cheryl Hines’s sister Rebecca, Cheryl might have quit show business after getting rejected three times for the same part. Activist Amanda Boxtel, who spent twenty-two years in a wheelchair, might have never walked unassisted again without support and guidance from friends and family who helped her accept the fact of her disability. We progress most efficiently when others support our desire to change and when they give feedback on our efforts. Just as a map helps us efficiently reach a destination without driving in haphazard circles, the coaches we choose keep us on track and moving efficiently toward our goals.
Using the Coach Hack
Embracing the Coach Hack means a mental shift away from defensiveness in response to feedback; it means readjusting the belief that mistakes signify lack of ability. When using the Hack, self-blame is ignored, and feedback is viewed as a developmental opportunity that promotes change and sustains growth. Think about how students respond to feedback from their professors. When receiving project feedback that asks for greater clarity or detail, one student might respond defensively, saying “I found your evaluation of my work to be unjustified, highly critical, and hurtful.” This student blames the instructor (who is trying to help the student improve their work) and elects to make no revisions. Another student, who perceives the exact same feedback as enhancing their learning process, will instead use the information to make targeted revisions and improve the quality of their final work product. Clearly, the latter student is applying the Coach Hack. Which student is more likely to turn in a better paper, in this class and in future classes? Clearly, the one who embraces feedback and coaching.
Use the Coach Hack in any situation where improving your performance might rev up your motivation to achieve. It’s easy to get discouraged when things aren’t going as planned; our motivation breaks down when we think we can’t win, or when the effort needed to win seems too high. The Coach Hack can reverse feelings of inadequacy from sub-par results or guilt from lack of effort: hone your focus, do an honest and complete self-evaluation, and make progress. Use the Coach Hack in any situation that has frustrated you, including lingering relationship issues, highly competitive work situations, or overwhelming projects. Focusing on outcomes and potential failures can result in your inclination to give up. But if failure is an opportunity to learn and improve, not a body blow to your sense of self, you will be much more likely to step into the ring and stay standing.
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Bobby Hoffman, Ph.D., author of Motivation for Learning and Performance, is an Associate Professor at the University of Central Florida.