Great Grandma Belle was single by the time I came along. She had been through three husbands by then. Great Grandpa died young, and apparently the next two husbands didn’t work out so well. She dissolved the last marriage by taking off her apron, putting on her bonnet, haltering up her milk cow, and off the two of them went to start a new life.
She declared her independence long before the women’s liberation movement. She grew her own food, raised her own chickens, traded eggs, milk and butter for groceries at the MFA 8 miles away. Grandma lived in a tiny house and did not drive. She depended on others to take her to town to trade. She would set out walking to town on Saturday mornings if nobody showed up. Banking was not an issue. She kept her money in old coffee cans strategically distributed around her tiny piece of land, trusting only her milk cow and her favorite grandson, my dad.
The rural neighborhood did not allow for much visiting, but friends and family did manage to get together at church picnics and other community events. Folks checked in on each other and enjoyed the occasional front porch visit. There were few phones in the neighborhood; so, no phone, no car, one cow, a few chickens, a little garden and a huge streak of independence.
Grandma Belle held nothing back. She was known to regularly besmirch neighbors behind their backs. As a small child, I remember her regularly ripping up her neighbor, Annie. Next thing you know, Annie would be angry with Grandma and the neighborhood drama would escalate. Faster than the speed of sound, the whole neighborhood would become a reality show. Told you she was ahead of her time.
The interesting thing to me then, and now, was that Grandma Belle would be completely shocked every single time someone was upset with her. She would always say the same thing. “Why … I don’t know why Annie’s so mad at me. I never said a harm word against her.” And, I remember so wanting to say, “Grandma, I heard you myself. We all did. Don’t you remember?”
“Harm word” stories became part of Gladden family lore — not the stories themselves, but how surprised Grandma Belle would always be that folks were so upset with her for no reason. I’m guessing that trashing her neighbors, and probably her own family members, cost her plenty. It might have cost her a couple of marriages. It likely lost her transportation to town. Who knows what else? She never figured it out.
Obviously, this left a huge impression on me. That childhood memory frequently makes me wonder about the high cost of a harm word. As we work with folks in all kinds of organizations, we pay attention to the environment in which they work — not so much the physical environment, although that’s very important. We pay particular attention to the interpersonal environment. For example, if folks are busy blaming one another for problems (or perceived problems), what might that be costing them, their organization, or their customers? Blame certainly fits into the category of “a harm word,” in my opinion.
When I indulge in blaming somebody or some condition for a problem, it means I am handing over my power to someone else. When we feel blamed by someone, our survival instinct kicks in, and we tend to spend our energy defending ourselves rather than fixing the problem or improving the situation. It’s human nature.
If our accounting systems were tracking the costs associated with blame in our organizations and in our country, we would be flabbergasted.
First and foremost, when I am blaming, I am not accepting responsibility for something I just might be able to improve. When folks feel like they or others will be blamed, they are not likely to reveal critical information that could actually prevent or solve costly problems.
Then there are the long term costs associated with damaged working relationships. What about costs associated with loss of trust? What about the talented people who are afraid to take a risk, because they might be blamed if things go south? Think of the time that we spend covering our tracks, lest we be blamed, and the messes we have to clean up related to all of this. It kind of reminds me of oil spills.
And, that’s just for starters.