American psychiatrist M Scott Peck wrote a bestselling book more than 25 years ago titled The Road Less Traveled. Early in the book, he outlines a few preconditions for a happy and fulfilled life (and one without thousands of hours at a therapist):
- Always seek out the truth;
- Take responsibility for your actions; and
- Seek balance in all that you do.
The preconditions all seem reasonable. We should seek out truth so that decisions are made on the basis of truthful statements or facts. We have seen how a lack of the pursuit of truth has destroyed partisanship in the United States and fuelled batshit crazy COVID-19 ideas in Australia.
And of course a balanced life is probably a happier one, although that will mean different things to different people. For some, balance will be spending most of their time at work and a smaller allocation with family, friends and hobbies. For others, work is only a way to fund a life so they will skew to more time with family, friends and hobbies and less time at work.
But what about taking responsibility for your actions?
Sign up for SmartCompany newsletter.
Free to your inbox every weekday
My guess is most kids are brought up with parents instilling the need to “own up”, and there are enough examples showing the power of owning up.
We only need to reflect on the power of the “Sorry” statement by Kevin Rudd and how important it was to First Nations people to understand that taking responsibility carries enormous power.
And yet, we now have Prime Minister Scott Morrison who seems unable to ever really say sorry or take responsibility for actions that may have caused harm. At best he tries to do versions of “Sorry … but”, where the “sorry” bit is so deeply buried in context that it is clear that he doesn’t feel sorry at all.
I have also noticed this unfortunate psychological trait in business. There are business leaders who just seem unable to accept they did something wrong or caused pain to others.
In my career I worked for some time with someone who seemed genuinely unable to ever take responsibility for their actions, or ever say sorry. There were many times when it was patently clear they had undertaken some specific and significant act that caused harm or damage — and yet they were unable to acknowledge their actions.
My life at work and at home is littered with examples where I have done the wrong thing or I did something which subsequently caused pain or harm. But in all cases I have quickly and in some detail apologised. It seemed that providing a meaningful and heartfelt apology was the least I could do after having caused pain. I just don’t get the big deal with owning up and trying to make amends.
The dark side of this psychological disorder (being unable to say sorry) is that the non-apologists continue to cause harm into the future. They are never forced to recalibrate and often, having “got away” with being a dick just reinforces (in their weird and twisted minds) the lack of need to ever take responsibility for their actions.
Which brings me back to Scott Morrison. Why was it so hard for him to admit he fucked up by not ordering enough COVID-19 vaccines from a wider variety of sources? Why wasn’t he able to apologise for the appalling carpark funding rorts? Why can’t Scott Morrison admit he and his government do not believe in climate change and that their plan is mostly bullshit?
And why couldn’t my ex-work colleague admit they had created enormous harm?
Looking for an answer, I come back to something my wife constantly reminds me of: ”You need to remember that most people are dicks.”
Maybe she is right. I hope not.
This article was first published by Crikey.