Think About How Everything Is Your Fault

With responsibility comes taking responsibility.

Ryan Fan
Ryan Fan
Jan 11, 2020 · 7 min read
Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Maybe you’re not doing as good as a job as you want to.

Maybe you go home each day bearing a lot of guilt over things that went wrong at work.

We’re on a slippery slope here, but I’m here to tell you that sometimes, that mindset is a good thing. Especially if you’re in a position of leadership or management.

As a special education teacher in a very tough environment, the mindset can seem unhealthy and difficult to stomach. But inefficient “Gotcha” management focuses on catching the people below you doing something wrong. It is quite obvious for me to point out when my students are doing something wrong, like using their phones or not doing their work — but “Gotcha” management relies on saying “gotcha!” when someone below you is doing something wrong and not what they’re supposed to do.

“It’s a management approach that focuses on catching your employees doing something — anything — wrong,” writes Victor Lipman of Forbes.

Good leadership requires planning, organizing, and coaching. Good leadership requires keeping those you’re in charge of engaged and motivated to your mission and your selling point. According to Lipman, you want to make the people you’re in charge of committed and productive.

But “Gotcha” management demoralizes the people below us because we’re always pointing out their mistakes and nothing they’re doing right. And before we shame people who fall into the “Gotcha” management style and mindset, we have to capture the core of what’s so appealing about “Gotcha” management to begin with?

“It’s a common trap to fall into,” writes Victor Lipman. “It’s tempting. It’s easy. At times it’s necessary. But it isn’t really management.”

Good leadership requires modeling and showing people how to do things you want them to do before they actually do it. Above all, it requires grace, compassion, and second chances. As someone who’s worked in middle and lower management in many corporate companies and informal organizations, the boss I respected most was the one that I knew had my back if I made a mistake, who I knew had my back. I had coaches who did this for me on my cross country teams in high school and in college.

Their leadership taught me to do the same for the people under my charge when I was in a supervisory role. I have covered for my employees on multiple occasions when I was in a middle management role not because I wanted to bend over backward to make people like me, but because having good relationships and giving grace allowed me to adhere by my moral code and made it easier to do my job.

On some occasions, I probably did too much for the people working under me. I remember one time when towels needed to be folded at the gym and I folded the towels instead of my employee. I remember that I folded the towels for her because I enjoyed the task and didn’t mind doing it — at the time, I wasn’t doing anything else, anyway, and I wanted to do anything I could to help out.

I remember my boss pulled me into his office and asked me why I hadn’t asked my employee to do it instead of doing it myself. I was honest and said I did it because it needed to be done. He told me to be tougher and force my employees to do it.

I remember what I did after I got the talk: I continued doing what I was doing. It was a work-study where we were all studying for our classes. To me, a good leader models compassion. A good leader models grace. A good leader models sacrifice. A good leader models responsibility and taking care of his or her own like they’re family.

A good leader to you might mean something different. But to me, “Gotcha” management always seeks instant gratification over long-term solutions. We want our employees to have good relationships with us and stay for long, or else our jobs get harder in the long run and we secretly start resenting our jobs and the daily punitive punishments we have to give out.

Word of mouth is as important as a professional recommendation. While we can’t see it and can’t see how people talk about us as supervisors behind our backs, prioritizing treating the people we’re in charge of with respect, giving love, soft or tough, and having their backs is essential.

A good leader, above all else, thinks about how everything is his or her fault. Yes, it might be unhealthy to do so, but with responsibility comes taking responsibility. If someone you’re in charge of training doesn’t know how to do something correctly, that’s your responsibility as a leader. If my students don’t know how to pronounce a word or write a sentence, that’s my responsibility as a teacher. If my kids are more engaged in drama and phone use than my lesson, that’s a sign that my lesson isn’t engaging enough. I just came from four years of college, inundated by lecture-style teaching for hours on end.

Obviously, as a special education teacher in the inner-city, lecture-style does not work. Kids need to work together, and they need to feel like they’re involved in the lesson process and actively contributing. A lot of the more difficult students, I’ve found, thrive on responsibility — and from the menial tasks to the complex ones, I have given them responsibilities like wiping the board or recording answers that allow them to take ownership over their own learning.

There’s the oft-quoted adage that the first rule of leadership is that everything is your fault. When you are in charge of something as serious as people’s lives or educations, everything has to be your fault. And none of us can do it alone, so seek out help from people you trust, people you know won’t behind your back. A mentor and support system is the most valuable thing that even leaders need because no leader can do it alone.

I have often regarded the term “professionalism” with a lot of derision because it implies that responsibility lies with lower and middle management, that people lower on the chain of management need to fall on their swords so high-up bosses and corporate managers can line their pockets. The yearning of professionalism is often what allows social inequity to be as prolific as it is because bosses are rewarded for blaming their employees on low performance, while employees bear the brunt of the burden.

Instead of professionalism, I always preferred accountability. Part of what makes the #MeToo movement so compelling is that it seeks out accountability for people who have abused their power — and instead of all of us complaining about the problem, let’s be part of the solution and take accountability not only for our mistakes but the mistakes of people who work for us.

After all, aren’t we making more money than people who work for us? Don’t we have better-looking positions on our resumes? Aren’t we making more influential connections?

So instead of playing the game the way it’s usually played, take responsibility. Think about how everything is your fault, because while there are a lot of factors that go into results and growth, there are a lot of things you can control, fix, and change for the better.

No, not everything is your fault. You can’t control a micromanaging, abusive, and controlling boss. But your boss has responsibilities too, and very overwhelming ones at that, most likely. If they’re micromanaging, and using “Gotcha” strategies it’s a sign that they have responsibilities that they themselves aren’t managing in the right way. Ineffective leadership will always start at the top, and it’s likely that your boss most likely has their boss telling them to crack down on you.

But those moments don’t last forever. Be patient. Give it time. Hold your mouth and keep showing up, and love and give second chances. Don’t give an infinite amount of second chances, and you should probably not be as much of a pushover as I am. Show people that it’s okay to apologize, to not know things and not have all the answers. Don’t be defensive because we all make a lot of mistakes.

And only think about when everything is your fault when you are in a position of relative power and influence over others. There is no reason why people abusing their power over you should make you think something is your fault — as there’s no reason why you should take the blame for being raped or assaulted.

As a leader, the tide of toxic leadership and management needs to stop somewhere down the chain. And that can be you, and it’ll benefit you so much if that is you — because when push comes to shove, people who work and learn from you can speak to how much heart and loyalty you have to your people, and that will make your job a lot more gratifying and easier in the long run. Starting with you and me, the culture of “Gotcha” leadership and management can change. We can build a culture where you and your people can have mutual trust and camaraderie.

So, as a leader, think about how everything is your fault, and in the long run, you and the people who work for you can build more gratifying workspace cultures and results for yourselves.

Ryan Fan

Written by

Ryan Fan

Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of “The Wire.” Email: Support me:

Change Becomes You

Life advice that will (actually) change your life. Curated stories from The Good Men Project.

Ryan Fan

Written by

Ryan Fan

Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of “The Wire.” Email: Support me:

Change Becomes You

Life advice that will (actually) change your life. Curated stories from The Good Men Project.

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