From my work in schools and other workplaces around Australia, I often hear the same complaint again and again …

  • School parents who believe everything their child has to say, who find it impossible to believe their child has lied to them or put forward a version of events that serve their interests
  • Colleagues who blame others for their unhappiness at work, who can’t see how their ongoing negativity is affecting their colleagues
  • Managers who complain about staff resisting change when they have not led change in a transparent and supportive way

So, why is it that so many people struggle in seeing that they may be contributing to a difficulty?

  1. Emotions have taken over: There are benefits to blaming others – giving us a false sense of feeling right or powerful. But unchecked emotions are a very bad master. We need to be reasonably tolerant when dealing with others, of course. Strong emotions are not always related to the present situation. Often, the build up of other stressors in that person’s life is driving the strong emotions.
  2. It’s a learned behaviour: Some people have grown up in families where the wrong example has been set of simply blaming others, never reflecting on their own behaviour. Psychologists call this an ego defence mechanism where they maintain their own self-worth, by bringing others down. Or they are projecting their own inadequacies onto others. At its worst, it is called bullying.

    Many people do know better, about how they should behave. But their stress has caused them to revert to familiar well-practised behaviours, often ones they have often learned from their childhood. At the core is a lack of emotional intelligence, something important they are yet to learn, Or it is a lack of deliberate practise of that intelligence.

  3. A mental health problem may be contributing: Some individuals may well be dealing with a mental health condition, personality disorder or serious mental illness which may be affecting their ability to express their emotions appropriately or think more reasonably. If we are fortunate enough to have a relationship of trust with that person, we can check if they are Ok, provide them with some support if they open up, and encourage them to speak further with their GP.

So what can we do with individuals who are attacking or blaming, but not looking at their part of the solution?

  1. Try to de-escalate the emotions: Often when people feel understood and empathised with or they have had time to settle, they are in a better position to have a more reasonable conversation and take responsibility for their part of a solution for the future. Helpful for many, but not all situations.
  2. Get your timing right: Sometimes, they need time to settle. Perhaps we offer a face saving reason for time out – to look into a matter and get back to them. For people who are being very disrespectful, it is Ok to say, “I am happy to speak with you, but not in this way. Either we keep it respectful or we find a better time.”
  3. Model the behaviour you want to see: Often, when we take responsibility for our own behaviour, others will tend to reciprocate. It also makes us more approachable and likeable. At the very least we are modelling healthy behaviour.

    Apart from some empathy, a leader might say to a team member unhappy about change,“I think the change I was leading could have been handled better. With hindsight, I think I could have communicated more and explained the reasons for change better …” At the right time, the leader might also say, “Let’s start talking about what we can all do to take things in a better direction.”

    There may also be legitimate concerns that people need action about. So, our willingness to empathise needs to be matched by timely and targeted actions. Even when actions are also required by those individuals, our willingness to do our part puts us in a stronger position to call for reciprocity.

  4. Confidently state a reasonable position: This is, of course, when they are more settled or open to hearing us. A school leader might say to a parent, “There may well be another side to this story. We need to also speak to speak to the teacher and the other student involved to get a full picture. I’m sure you would want us to speak to your child if another student complained about them.” 

    A team leader who is dealing with a colleague who is defensive to feedback, apart from reassuring the team member of good intentions, might say, “There are no perfect people. We all need to be open to feedback. This is how we improve.”

  5. Tap into their motivators: Most people have a capacity for change. But they do need to see the need for change. So, tapping into what people are motivated for and linking their motivators to the changes you want to see is important.

    As well as some empathy, a team member might say to their manager who is complaining abut colleagues who are resisting change, “I think if we keep people well-informed about what is happening and give them a say in some decisions, that we will get more cooperation with change. I think we need to over-communicate and share decision making when possible.”

  6. Use third parties when needed: There may well be someone who wants the same things you do who has a relationship of trust with that individual. The higher the trust or respect we have for another, the more we tend to be open to their feedback or suggestions.

    I think of schools that use Community Liaison Officers to build relationships with disaffected parents. Or of colleagues who respond well to feedback from a leader or other colleague with whom they have a good relationship. Timing plays a part here as well.

  7. Consider relevant training: This is a large part of the work I do, providing customised training to support team members to be open to feedback, to take responsibility for their part of a solution and contribute positively to team relationships, morale and effectiveness.

    During such training, I often help teams develop a Team Charter of behaviours they agree to share and hold themselves and each other accountable to. Here the team is using the consensus of the group and the positive example of other team members to shape the behaviour of certain individuals and build a better team culture.

Sadly, not everyone changes. For those who demonstrate over time that they lack a capacity for change, we can at least demonstrate that we have exhausted all reasonable steps to improve the situation before exploring other measures.

The good news is that as we take responsibility for our part of a difficulty, make amends when needed, and do our part to help things to improve, these healthy behaviours help to make us better people. They set a good example for others. And they also help us to build better relationships.

Quote of the week

“The victim mindset dilutes the human potential. By not accepting personal responsibility for our circumstances, we greatly reduce our power to change them.”

Steve Maraboli, Author and Behavioural Scientist


Do you know someone who is quirky – who has peculiar aspects of their appearance, thinking or behaviour that are unique to them?

To be honest, I think we all have our own personal quirks – things that make us who we are, that give us personality, and make us special. My wife, Christy, tells me I am very special.

If we are sufficiently odd or different, we start entering the world of the eccentric. Eccentrics, I believe, are very much underappreciated as they add much colour to the world.

Too be honest, I do admire eccentrics for the diversity they bring to the world and for being truly themselves. When I told Christy that I aspire to become an eccentric, she replied that I am well on my way.

Here are a few of my personal quirks that she may have been thinking of.

  • I am quite tidy, but am slightly OCD about things left on floors.
  • I say I am not superstitious, but I will not buy a home where people have lived unhappily.
  • I am mostly very polite and diplomatic, but I do get myself into trouble when I speak too quickly
  • I buy multiples of clothes that I like – my wardrobe is full of black t-shirts and similar types of shoes. And I have spares waiting to be used.
  • I can recall 20 unrelated facts in order and reverse order, but have difficulty remembering names

Some of you have diagnosed me already. Or have considerable compassion for my loved ones and colleagues. I hope a few of you can relate.

One interesting thing about quirks is that they tend to be more noticeable to others, than to ourselves. For us, they seem normal and I hope, for me at least, they are amusing or charming in some way.

But for other people, our quirks are not so endearing. So, what can we do to respond well to other people’s idiosyncrasies, particularly those that frustrate us in some way?

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Find a kinder perspective: We all have our own quirks – some charming or amusing and others that can be quite frustrating. If we are allowed to have our own quirks, so are other people.
  2. Learn to accommodate their quirks. Yes, some idiosyncrasies of others we can simply learn to live with. Christy doesn’t understand why I don’t like things left on floors. I don’t understand why the kitchen benches always need to be left clean and tidy. Although we don’t understand, we at least try to show consideration. Of course, it is always nice when our efforts to be flexible, tolerant and considerate are reciprocated.
  3. Value difference: It would certainly be a boring world if we all looked, thought and acted the same way. And in workplaces, good teams are built around individuals with complementary strengths – often the flip side of their personal quirks. So, we need to appreciate more that behind an individual’s frustrating behaviour there is often an underappreciated personal strength. Some of the geniuses throughout history have also been quite eccentric.
  4. Influence change when needed: Yes, some quirks are easier to live with than others. And sometimes there are behaviours we cannot reasonably tolerate. But having said that, I think we spend too much time trying to change other people when we could simply be more patient and tolerant. The challenge here is getting the balance right.

Remember that it is Ok to be different, odd or eccentric. But it’s not ok to be inconsiderate, disrespectful or offensive. Consideration, tolerance and flexibility need to work both ways.

Quote of the week

“I am not eccentric. It’s just that I am more alive than most people. I am an unpopular electric eel set in a pond of catfish.”

– Edith Sitwell, British Poet

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Workplace Bullying: What Individuals Can Do
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