Learning to Stop Blaming the "Other"

Blaming the "Other" for adversities and crises often led to disastrous consequences. Trying to understand and reach out is always the better choice - even in our workplace.


Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting "The Triumph of Death"
All hell broke loose in medieval Europe due to the plague

"Then on the Sunday before Valentine's Day in the year of our Lord 1349, the bishops and lords of Strasbourg held a conference on this business of the Jews [...]. And so, on the following Saturday, the Jews, who had been brought by the new burghermeisters to the Stoltzenecke so that they could be led away from there, were conducted to their cemetery to be burnt in a specially prepared house. And two hundred of them were completely stripped of their clothes by the mob, who found a lot of money in them. But the few who chose baptism were spared, and many beautiful women were persuaded to accept baptism, and many children were baptized after they were snatched from mothers who refused this invitiation. All the rest were burnt, and many were killed as they leaped out of the fire." [1]


This harrowing eyewitness account of the 1349 "Valentine's day" massacre in Strasbourg, France, describes how several hundreds of Jews were publicly burnt alive and their remaining belongings distributed amongst the murderers. This massacre is one out of many examples of pogroms throughout medieval Europe that took place during the years of the Great Plague (1347 - 1351), in which an estimated 30% - 60% of the European population [2] succumbed to this terrible disease.


In those years, rumours began to spread amongst the deeply frightened European populace that Jews were less affected by the plague and even spreaded it through poisoning wells. But Jews were not the only minority that was blamed and persecuted during those times: beggars, lepers, friars and - of course - foreigners were also blamed for the crisis [3].


Are there Parallels to the Current Pandemic?


Now, let's get that straight: I know that there are already plenty of articles out there that try to draw parallels between the Great Plague or the Spanish Flu and the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Naturally, there are some parallels, but also many differences, such as the wholly different nature of the diseases causing the pandemic or of the times that they are occuring in. I rather want to make the point that all crises act as catalysts to our behaviour: they have the ability to bring out the best in us, but also very often the worst.


When talking to people about the current crisis or looking at commentaries across the web, I get the impression that, once again, some of us are out to hunt for a scapegoat. Be it a supranational institution, a single country and its citizens, one's own government or, according to "long-held tradition", any kind of minority, blaming the "Other" is again trending nowadays. The "Other" can indeed take many forms, but is always something foreign, distant, that serves as the manifestation of an immaterial adversity that someone is confronted with.


There are numerous examples of such "Others" in this current health crisis: first it was Asians or people of Asian descent that were harassed in Europe and the US, then it was Europeans being accused of spreading the disease abroad, and now even Africans are confronted with xenophobia in China, as fears of a second infection wave mount. Increasingly, politicians around the world have gotten a taste of how easy it is to instrumentalise the current crisis and the ensuing political turmoil in order to obtain their political objectives by either blaming their own governments or supranational institutions.


Does such behaviour only happen in times of crisis or does it, indeed, sound all to familiar? I am sure that many of you are no stranger to "playing the blame game" in the office, be it in the face of impending failure, for concealing one's own mistakes, or for furthering one's own ambitions. Whatever the cause, the behaviour of blaming the "Other" is the culprit for many problems that we face in our working environment on a daily basis.


Blaming the "Other" at Work


I firmly believe that the combination of rising technical complexity and a VUCA world can only be countered through direct and efficient interdisciplinary collaboration. Naturally, this approach forms a group out of individuals that may have different backgrounds, cultures and vested interests, but that together work towards a common goal.


If the approach is not that of forming a single interdisciplinary team, but rather teams of specialists that collaborate in the frame of an overarching project or process setup, it does not take long for episodes of blaming the "Other" to occur.


In IT projects, for instance, I often heard variations of this motive:


  • We ran out of money because business keeps changing the scope

  • We needed more time because the requirements provided by business were imprecise

  • Our customers rejected the product because development did not follow our specs

  • Development built the system such that we can not operate it

  • ...


Off the top of my head, I could easily fill a couple of pages with statements like the ones above.


Blaming is especially easy when the "Other" is in a weaker position (as is the case for any minority, by definition). "Vendor bashing" is very good example for that: when talking about delays or cost overruns of projects, I have seen the vendor being blamed countless times for various reasons that were either flat-out wrong or could have at least been corrected in the course of the project. And, at the end of the day, one could always say that the only mistake that was made was in choosing the wrong vendor.


Understand and Reach Out to each "Other"


In the past few years, agile methodologies tried to break up exactly those seemingly insurmountable boundaries between teams of specialists. Besides forming a single team across those boundaries, the trick was to make everyone responsible for the decisions that needed to be made. This approach left little room to blaming the "Other" within the team, as, by design, everyone was responsible for each good decision, but also for each bad decision.


Imagine that your team conducts a Backlog Refinement in a Scrum setting and finds out that the estimate for the scope of the next release needs to be substantially increased, which means that the release will both cost more and (assuming no change in velocity) will happen later.


In a wrong setting, now would be the time for the blame game to start, as the Product Owner will be blame the Development Team for their wrong estimates and the Development Team will blame the Product Owner for setting unrealistic release dates. Even the Scrum Master could be pointed out as the "Other", since he should have pointed out to have more frequent Backlog Refinements.


In the right setting, your Scrum Team would buckle up after getting over the initial shock, with the Product Owner trying to renegotiate the scope of the next release, the Development Team looking for ways to improve its velocity while still maintaining quality, and the Scrum Master identifying and focusing on all impediments that might slow down the effort.


The "Other" may of course also be outside your team and may often take the form of a "legacy application" or a governance department. Even in those cases, playing the blame game will only harm your team's endeavour, since this very same legacy application must be vital to your project when it can slow it down that much or this very same governance department tries to address a legal risk that will otherwise come to haunt you in the future. It always pays off to understand the motivations of the "Other" and, especially when those motivations appear to be an obstacle to your project, reach out to them in order to influence their decisions in your favour.


Care to Know More?


Would you also like to know more about this post's topic? If so, then please post your questions in the comments below and I will be answering them. If the subject of your question is a hot topic, then I will dedicate a post to it in the future.


Further reading


[1] J. Aberth, The Black Death : the great mortality of 1348-1350 : a brief history with documents. Buffalo, NY: Bedford/St. Martin's Macmillan Learning, 2017.

[2] O. Benedictow, "The Black Death: The Greatest Catastrophe Ever," History Today, vol. 55, no. 3, March 2005. [Online]. Available: https://www.historytoday.com/archive/black-death-greatest-catastrophe-ever. [Accessed Apr. 11, 2020].

[3] D. Nirenberg, Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.



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