Daily News (South Africa)

Blame game a vicious circle


International conflict experts say that reciprocity is the most powerful predictor of human behaviour. As a consequence anger and blame will always cause cycles of conflict.

I had just returned from training in the US in reducing and reversing conflict.

Landing at OR Tambo Airport on April 16, we were greeted with the headlines of the Boston bombing. During the training the point had been made that anger and hostility are on the increase, globally. The Boston bombing seemed to be further evidence thereof. It was so good to be home in South Africa, but one could not help getting the sense that the levels of anger and hostility are higher within our society than in the US.

On the flight, anger and blame seemed to be bouncing around a particular group of the SAA cabin crew like a bullet inside an armoured car.

A cabin crew member appeared oblivious to the unprofessional image she portrayed as she was caught up in her personal workplace conflict.

Anger and blame trigger anger and blame in the other party. At work, we experience it in the form of attack-and-avoid behaviours. The forthright approach of the air hostess is uncommon. Accusations are usually made behind closed doors, and information is withheld in meetings.

Factions form, contempt grows and productivity shrinks. The cost of escalated conflict is high and usually not measured. Blame and contempt have many costs. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “After anger comes shame.”

Depression is sadly commonplace in our society. A culture of anger and blame will produce depression. Depression is anger turned inwards. People get caught in a cycle of blaming others for their pain, then blaming themselves and then blaming others. And so the self-defeating and costly cycle continues. Blame focuses on personalities. We attack people that we feel “are to blame” for our frustrations.

We attack their character, motives or competence. However, the problem – which is the real source of our frustrations – remains.

The Marikana tragedy may be a pertinent example.

When the news hit, the voices of blame cried out against the SAPS, the mining bosses, the union officials.

Whereas accountability and culpability are worthy principles, without an investigation into the underlying systemic and environmental causes of the tragedy, the problems that caused the tragedy will not be addressed.

They will simply manifest in a different, yet equally destructive form in the future.

It must be noted that negative reciprocity may also have been a significant factor at Marikana as the massacre followed the grizzly and barbaric murders of two police officers by some striking workers.

We underestimate the influence that the environment has on our lives.

Zimbardo’s Harvard Prison experiment clearly indicates that our environment has an unbelievable influence.

People’s behaviours depend on the rules of the game and the norms of the group. You just have to watch Survivor or Extreme Makeover, Home Edition to know that is true.

The South African government has spent thousands on psychological assessments of Eugene de Kock, driven by a morbid curiosity as to what the psychological make-up is of a person who could perpetuate such horrendous acts.

Let us consider the “environment factors” – a Darwinian belief that blacks were inferior to whites, the overriding fear of the Marxist-atheist-influenced ANC taking over “Die Vaderland” and the sporadic bombing by the MK targeting white communities.

De Kock had very little accountability other than to meet the performance measures: “neutralise the ANC and eradicate MK cadres.”

Pull together these ingredients and you have the perfect recipe for the commander of Vlakplaas designing and authorising heinous acts against fellow humans.

Today, De Kock is a man wracked with personal guilt. Why? Because the norms of the society in which he lives have changed. Therefore his thinking has changed.

Anna Maravelas points out that it takes two or three people to lower group norms.

It takes a collaborative effort to raise the norms.

In South Africa, we need to change the way we think when faced with frustrations.

Thoughts trigger emotions which trigger behaviour. Behaviour creates culture.

Culture creates environment, which affects the way that we think.

Another cycle is created.

Einstein said we cannot solve problems at the level of thinking that we had when we created them.

This change in thinking necessitates us moving away from blame towards curiosity.

A mentality of collaborative curiosity enables us to intelligently investigate and assess the underlying factors that have caused frustration and conflict. It results in the opening of dialogue with deepened understanding.

Often what follows is the exchanging of apologies and forgiveness leading to reconciliation. Most importantly, an attitude of collaborative curiosity allows us to change systems, processes and even group norms so that we are able to live and work in more harmonious and productive environments.

* Owen is a director of Owen, Adendorff & Associates. For more information go to www.owenaden.co.za