Today’s guest blog post by author and academic Tim Hillier looks at our reactions to success and failure and why we need to be cautious about rushing to apportion blame when things go wrong…
The last few weeks have been pretty extraordinary for the people and city of Leicester and in particular the supporters of Leicester City Football Club.
Since about 9.45pm on Monday 2nd May the city has been in a state of almost permanent euphoria. As the euphoria subsides many attempt to explain the reasons behind the 5,000-1 outsiders’ triumph. There has been some inevitable focus on a number of key individuals: manager Caudio Ranieri, players Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, the Thai owner, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha.
More often, however, those attempting to explain have stressed the teamwork, the organisation, the marginal differences made to training or tactics, or diet. Success tends to be understood in terms of an alignment of a wide range of factors. Everyone from the CEO to the 8 year old mascot has had a part to play and can take credit from and pride in the success.
Contrast that to how society reacts to failure. Every season a large number of football managers lose their jobs, scapegoated for a lack of success on the field.
“When the brick goes through the chairman’s window it hits the manager on the head”
On Radio 4’s The Blame Game (first broadcast on May 8 2016) former manager Steve Coppell spoke to Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller about the readiness of clubs to channel blame towards identifiable individuals. Dame Eliza quoted the phrase “When the brick goes through the chairman’s window it hits the manager on the head” summing up the downward spiral that sees poor results lead to supporter discontent lead to pressure on the club’s owners resulting in the manager’s sacking.
Quick to blame
Nor is this process confined to football. In all walks of life society has become increasingly quick to blame. In recent times the term blamestorming has been coined reflecting the way in which, when something goes wrong, organisations and the wider society seek to allocate blame to identifiable individuals or groups of individuals.
The Hillsborough inquest further illustrates the point. Initially sections of the media (and some politicians) were happy to point the finger of blame at Liverpool supporters. The absolute wrongness of that decision was confirmed at the second Hillsborough inquest just concluded. Yet rather than seek to look for a combination of contributing factors (including human error) the finger of blame has now been pointed at the South Yorkshire police and a number of individual officers.
A football ground on the day of a cup semi-final can be a fairly chaotic, unpredictable place. Decisions by those responsible for the safety of spectators have to be made in an instant. Human beings will sometimes make the wrong decision. Nobody intended the deaths at Hillsborough, just as no social worker or director of social services intends children should suffer neglect and abuse.
5000 to 1
Just like success, failure and disaster occurs as the result of a complex combination of factors coming together. The odds of this convergence occurring may be 5000 to 1 (or greater). To seek to blame an individual or group of individuals in such situations doesn’t in any way reduce the chances of the event re-occurring. If anything the opposite may be true: with the threat of being scapegoated lurking in the background people become risk averse and unwilling to make decisions.
In a climate of fear, accidents, disasters and tragedies are more rather than less likely
This is not to say that any blame is inappropriate. Clearly there were some grave errors of judgement made on the day of the match and the extensive cover-up afterwards is inexcusable. Although cover-ups are more likely to occur when individuals or institutions are keen to avoid blame. Those effected by tragedies may want those responsibly to be held to account but above all they want to know the truth.
In a climate of fear, accidents, disasters and tragedies are more rather than less likely. When the 5000-1 outsider romps home to victory we can celebrate and calmly investigate the possible reasons for the purposes of seeing if the victory can be repeated. When the 5,000-1 chance tragedy occurs we need to commiserate and heal and calmly investigate the reasons for the purposes of seeing if the tragedy can be avoided.
Blame has an important role but today’s society seems to value it to the exclusion of other more positive responses. As Radio 4’s The Blame Game said “Today’s society has become too quick to blame”.
Together with Gavin Dingwall, Professor of Criminal Justice Policy at De Montfort University, he has written Blamestorming, blamemongers and scapegoats: Allocating blame in the criminal justice process which is now out in paperback and available to purchase from the Policy Press website here.
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