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Stemming the Tide of Victimization

Categories: Victimization

This is the final post in this series. The victimization[1] syndrome can be compared to a virus that has infected not only clients, but our profession as well. Transformational change intensifies existing victimization and brings any latent tendencies to the surface. No one—advocates, agents, targets, or sponsors—is immune from its destructive power.

Treating victimization (whether it’s within clients or ourselves) requires a containment/vigilance strategy because it is one of those diseases that, once contracted, is difficult to fully eradicate. With sufficient courage and discipline, the mindset and behavioral symptoms can be held in check and we can remain observant for any early signs of reoccurrence. With victimization in remission, however, reoccurrence is always a possibility. It is ready to ambush us if given the slightest chance, so we can never assume a full cure and let our guard down.

That said, let’s recalibrate on our objective here. The following are key points from the first post in this series:

  • Victims think they are on the receiving end of external forces (people, things, events, etc.) that determine how their circumstances unfold. Influencers see themselves as being one of the key forces in play as situations develop.
  • Victims believe that, because of the surrounding conditions, they are helpless. Influencers believe that, regardless of the surrounding conditions, they can have a significant bearing on what will transpire.
  • Victims feel they can’t personally control what happens to them, and they can’t even affect who or what is in control. Influencers feel they can either:
    • exercise direct control to get what they want,
    • leverage their empowered relationships to sway who or what is in control, or
    • reframe the situation to be more advantageous for them.

As change practitioners, our role calls for us to do all we can to inhibit victim tendencies in our clients as well as ourselves, while fostering and modeling influencer thinking and behavior as much as possible.

How can we help prevent, contain, and minimize the impact of victimization? Here are a few perspectives I’ve found helpful:

  • We are here to assist clients in making informed decisions as they navigate the challenges of major change. This presumes they see themselves as able to have an effect on what is transpiring. We aren’t of much value to people who don’t believe their views or ideas will carry much weight. To the degree clients don’t subscribe to the influencer mindset, it is our responsibility to bring it to their attention and do all we can to encourage and support them in moving in that direction.
  • Whenever clients face two or more alternatives, there is an opportunity to call out and address victimization tendencies, if they exist. We must listen and observe carefully for symptoms that suggest the person sees himself or herself as having no alternatives, or is limiting his or her options to ones that don’t appear too expensive.
  • It is important to remember that this disease knows no boundaries and no one is spared. It would be a mistake on our part to assume senior executives are too powerful ever to feel like victims or that targets are too powerless to feel anything but victimized.

    All four change roles (sponsors, agents, targets, and advocates) as well as all organizational hierarchical levels (CEO through first-line supervisors) are subject to victimization inclinations that may or may not be activated. If symptoms are triggered, they are expressed differently, based on personalities, roles, and levels within an organization, but the basic characteristics are always the same—feeling trapped with no options.

    Sponsors may grumble behind closed doors that people aren’t following through with what they were told to do. Agents might complain, but only to peers, that their implementation advice isn’t taken seriously. Targets may murmur to themselves or gripe to colleagues and friends that they can’t keep up with all the changes coming at once. Advocates might quietly object that they aren’t invited into the dialogue until change decisions have already been made. Regardless of the particulars of each situation, victimization is always about feeling stranded and boxed in.

  • When helping clients fully grasp the victim viewpoint, it is important to distinguish between victimization and someone choosing not to pursue his or her preferences..

    It’s an inaccurate oversimplification to say, “Victims do what they are told (while complaining/criticizing) and influencers do what they want (with costly implications).” People make decisions all the time that run against what they would rather do, but this doesn’t make them victims. Victims are people who make such decisions without acknowledging that it was their choice (albeit, a costly one). They declare that they are forced into staying in negatives circumstances because they had no choice when, in fact, the choice they selected was to remain in the status quo..

    People don’t give up their influencer status just because they engage in an activity they dislike (even under duress). They give it up when they acquiesce without accepting responsibility for making the decision to do so..

    You won’t often hear influencers say, “I had no choice,” “There is only one way to go,” or “All the alternatives have been taken off the table.” They may express how much they hate a choice they’ve made, or how mad they are at who or what led to them to choose among various unpleasant options, but they seldom grumble that someone or something “forced” them to act in a certain way. “Poor me, I have no say in the matter” is not a viewpoint influencers accept.

  • At some point, the dialogue between client and change agent comes down to the bottom line. Each practitioner will have his or her way of approaching this moment and expressing what they believe should be said. I usually try to offer some combination of the following points (not necessarily all of them, and not necessarily in this order):
    • I care enough about you and what you are trying to accomplish to want to help you cut through the drama that is inhibiting your progress. This will require an extremely direct exchange between us and will likely include some points of discomfort for you, but I’m confident this level of candor is in your best interest and will result in progress toward your stated intent.
    • As long as you maintain the victim stance in this situation, you lose twice…you don’t get what you want, and you feel helpless in the process.
    • Whether you can get what you want or at least lessen the negative implications for yourself remains to be seen, but you have full control over continuing in the victim position.
    • The way out is to recognize that you are not trapped without options. You have options to consider (some of which are very expensive) that you may or may not choose to exercise, but it is your choice. Even if you decide not to pursue any of the alternatives and stay with things as they are now, it is still your choice. In that sense, you are in control of your own destiny.
    • The first step is to be clear about the cost of staying in the negative situation, as it is, versus the cost of pursuing alternative courses of action (various currencies that could be involved might include money, hard work, risk of jeopardizing job, power, relationships, etc.).
    • You’ll then have to make a decision regarding whether to pay for maintaining the status quo or pay for attempting to resolve the situation (or at least shifting some of the factors to be more favorable for you).
    • Making this determination is unavoidable—you will make a decision. It may be through commission or omission, but it is impossible to avoid reaching a conclusion. (Even deciding that you can’t decide is a decision.)
    • Determining which cost to pay is not the same as actually making the payments. As you deliberate among your choices, remember—it is always harder to deal with the consequences of such a determination than you can imagine when you are making the decision, regardless of which way you go. It will be expensive to stay with what you have or to shift how things are. Your decision is about how much and what you will pay for, not whether you will pay.
    • If you conclude that you will attempt to resolve the problem (or at least mitigate some of its negative implications), two strategies are your best bets—direct control or empowerment:

      • There is more detail provided in a previous post about the specifics of having direct control, but the net/net is that this strategy allows you to get what you want (clarity of intent + knowledge of what actions to take + the ability/willingness to take those actions = desired outcome). From the victim’s standpoint, this means moving beyond the reluctance to pay the price necessary for resolution and engage whatever it is that will bring a conclusion to the matter (even though the cost for doing so will be high).
      • There is more detail provided in a previous series, where I describe the specifics of empowerment, but the net/net is that this strategy allows you to persuade someone who has direct control to grant what you want. From the victim’s standpoint, this means your views are respected enough by the decision maker to carry weight during his or her considerations. You may not always get what you want but the likelihood for some degree of success is much greater if your perspectives are valued and listened to.
    • If you conclude that you will stay with the situation as it is, then “self-reframing” is your best strategy.

      More detail is provided in a previous blog series where I go into specifics of the reframing process, but the net/net is that, because you chose to maintain the status quo, it is important to reshape how you interpret the experience. Reframing involves reconfiguring a person’s frame of reference and related priorities to shift how he or she sees certain things. Through reframing, new perceptions and meaning are made possible that would otherwise not be feasible. Reframing yourself consists of focusing your attention on the same information previously available, but viewing it differently so the implications can be recalibrated more in your favor.

    • Senior sponsors who aspire to minimize victimization in their organizations, can use two effective deterrents—one proactive, and one reactive:
      • Proactive—Leaders ensure proper screening so as not to hire people predisposed to victimization in the first place. Next, they convey explicit messages and consequences to demonstrate a tenacious stand against victim mindsets and actions. They personally keep a tight vigilance for any displays of victimization and show a zero tolerance attitude when they see early signs of it. Finally, they ensure the leaders below them do the same.
      • Reactive—The culture doesn’t provide a safe haven for victims. At all levels, colleagues respond immediately and definitively in squelching any early signs of victimization among their co-workers and teammates. In strong, influencer-dominant work environments, it is the rank-and-file that show little patience for whiners or the dodging of responsibility. It is peers who are swift to let anyone with such tendencies know that such behavior isn’t welcomed.

As committed as we may be to helping clients address their victimization, it is not up to us. Our role isn’t to make them stop being victims, it’s to help them make an informed decision about whether or not to continue on that trajectory.

All of the above applies to us as practitioners as much as it does to our clients. Moreover, our ability to assist clients with their victimization is in direct proportion to the extent to which we have addressed these issues within ourselves. To be a true asset to our clients, we must acknowledge our own victim vulnerabilities and learn how to manage them in ourselves and encourage the same with colleagues within our professional community.


Victimization can be compared to a disease that eats away at the confidence a person needs to successfully navigate transformational change. The syndrome has a debilitating impact and permeates the industries we serve as well as our own profession.

The stress and strain that accompanies transformational change tends to trigger and exacerbate tendencies toward blaming and dodging responsibility. To be effective in addressing victimization among our clients, we must first attend to it within ourselves. In this respect, it is imperative that we model the influencer profile—believing and behaving as though we can make choices that have an effect on the outcome of the projects we support. Our role calls for us to do all we can to deter victim tendencies in our clients as well as ourselves while fostering influencer behavior as much as we possibly can.

 Go to the beginning of the series.


[1]  I have defined a victim as a person who feels trapped in negative circumstances with no way out. Influencers are the antithesis of victims—they believe they can help shape the outcome of negative circumstances by the choices they make.

Posted on: October 09, 2012 01:29 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Change Throws Gasoline on the Flames of Victimization

Categories: Victimization

In the two previous posts, I wrote about the negative impact victimization can have on people and organizations. Here, I’ll describe what happens when victimization surfaces during a change initiative, and the ways it effects our profession.

Significant organizational initiatives not only magnify existing victimization; they stir up any latent predispositions toward blaming and dodging accountability. If victimization tendencies become activated or worsen, they can be a serious hindrance to reaching intended outcomes:

  • Based on my experience, the three big logjams that check the progress of change more than any others are: 1) poor sponsorship, 2) overloading the organization with too much change coming too fast, and 3) cultural norms that are misaligned with desired outcomes.

    One of the most destructive cultural patterns that undermines successful execution occurs when the victim mindset is alive and well within the leadership ranks and/or deeply embedded throughout the enterprise. Think of victimization as both a cause and an accelerator of implementation pathology—it encourages new blockages to form and stimulates those already in place.

  • Victimization is one of the worst inhibitors to realization. The negative repercussions it heaps on the implementation process are massive. Here are just a few examples of what a victim mindset can do to a change project: 
    • Contribute to unsolved problems and unleveraged opportunities
    • Slow or completely derail execution progress
    • Contribute to miscommunications
    • Consume resources
    • Foster resistance
    • Undermine trust
    • Impede commitment building
    • Constrain resilience

These are no small obstructions. They each represent significant stumbling blocks to accomplishing intended outcomes, but when they surface in clusters (as is usually the case), the aggregate impact can be devastating to initiative success.

  • Victims don’t make good partners for sponsors. They tend to go underground rather than discussing their concerns openly, withhold honest feedback, and make only risk-averse observations and suggestions. Even when sponsors reach out and ask for their viewpoints and ideas, victims usually dodge the touchy issues and offer only safe recommendations that are consistent with the leader’s biases.

  • It would be easy to think that victimization during major change is demonstrated primarily by people lower in the hierarchy. Not so. Sponsors are no less immune to the pitfalls of victimization than others in the organization. For example, when leaders first see emerging resistance in their organization, they often want to reprimand the specific individuals involved or start blaming the culture. It becomes even worse if the pushback is pervasive and threatens initiative success, but the sponsors determine there is nothing they can do about it. Even though it is a senior leader displaying this behavior, it is classic victimization.
  • Here is another example of a situation common to implementing big transitions: A senior-level sponsor privately acknowledges that a peer on the leadership team is dragging his feet and blocking a key element of the execution plan but the sponsor does nothing about it. For fear of “making waves” or “causing more problems than it is worth,” executives who are very powerful under other circumstances sometimes cower at the thought of directly confronting such a situation.

    It’s thinking like this that promotes victimization in others. It is a perfect example of the disease permeating even the sponsorship ranks. Victim mindsets can’t survive unless allowed to do so by peers or higher leadership.

    If ridding the organization of victim leanings becomes a true imperative, there is no question that it can be contained, if not eliminated, by focused, tenacious attention by leadership and by peers. However, that is only possible if executives come on as influencers[1], not victims.

    In an earlier blog series, I differentiated dilemmas (inherent to a situation; must be managed) from problems (can be eliminated if you are willing to pay the price for doing so). The malady called victimization is now so embedded in some corporate cultures that many sponsors of transformational change treat it as a dilemma to be endured, not a problem that could be resolved if the right actions were pursued. This means sponsors are feeling victimized by victimization itself.

How many of us are part of the hidden victim constituency?

With change dynamics fueling the victimization fires, as change practitioners, we have an obligation to examine our own culpability in spreading the victimization virus.

Most of the implementation barriers we contend with in our work can be held at arm’s length—meaning we are able to apply the proper objectivity to the various realization risk we identify and help mitigate. This detachment is possible because the inhibitors reside within the client system, not within ourselves[2]. Seasoned professional change facilitators should always operate with a level of independence that ensures what they think, say, and do is consistent with what is in the client’s best interest (not what will keep feathers from being ruffled or job security intact).

It is quite a different matter, however, if we allow ourselves to be pulled in too close to the client’s political dynamics. It jeopardizes the objectivity we need for our work. It’s even worse if we display the same dysfunctional symptoms we are being called on to address (i.e., change agents operating as card-carrying victims themselves).

Clients are likely to manifest victimization differently than a practitioner but, at the end of the day, both react to negative situations as if they were trapped with no options. The victim response is probably being triggered by different circumstances, but regardless of what activates their helplessness, they are both displaying the same change-related dysfunction.

Some observations on how victimization impacts our profession

  • Victimization is like one of those flesh-eating bacteria that have been showing up in the news recently—once embedded, it is both destructive and extremely difficult to eradicate. It can’t be treated with Band-Aids and topical creams. Interventions must go to the core of the disease and the healing process is difficult and painful.

    It’s hard enough to practice our craft as strong influencers. How can we possibly be a useful resource in addressing our client’s victimization if we manifest some degree of the same affliction? Victims can’t administer to other victims except to participate in and foster the very sense of impotence that needs to be eliminated.

  • I believe this challenges each of us as change practitioners to explore whether there is a victim lurking within. It’s tricky, though, because we can be infected without being aware of it. Some of us are such obvious victims that even the most casual observer can see it. Others, however, express the disease much more subtly:

    • Now is not a good time to be honest with the client about what is going on.
    • It would be too disruptive to call out ineffective and/or inappropriate behavior by certain leaders.
    • We should look past what is happening and try to make the situation work without surfacing the problems causing risk to realization.
    • There is no reason to make recommendations to the client that they aren’t ready to implement.
    • We shouldn’t make a big deal out of the fact that key people are behaving as if our opinion is not valued or respected.

    Remember Gandhi’s words of wisdom that so many of us have shared with our clients about “being the change you want to accomplish”? Well, there’s a dark-side interpretation to that saying that has ominous implications for us: If we are not careful, we can “become the pathology we are trying to eradicate.”

  • No doubt, raising the possibility of our own victimization won’t be welcomed by all reading this post. Yet, I’d like to caution you about any kneejerk reaction against the suggestion that you could be among the hidden victim constituency.
    • Our profession is a magnet for self-reliant types who think of themselves as “take no prisoners” independents but who then:

      • complain about clients without mentioning any of their concerns to them,
      • blame clients behind their backs for projects not going well, and
      • resign themselves to what little effect they have with their key decision makers.

      These are change practitioners who pride themselves on talking the talk about being direct and explicit with clients but then can’t seem to walk the walk when the opportunities actually present themselves.

  • For nearly 40 years I have trained, coached, and mentored thousands of professional change agents. Some were internal practitioners, some operated from a base outside their client’s organization. Some were being prepared for a specific portfolio of initiatives; some were strengthening their knowledge and skills for a career-long journey in this profession. Some came from support function backgrounds (Strategic Planning, HR, OD, IT, etc.); others paid their dues on the line side of their businesses. What has been astonishing to me all this time is that even though their professional training and skill bases were as varied as they could be, nearly all these practitioners struggled with some degree of victimization.
  • The problem is so pervasive that I’ve spent a long time looking for possible historical root causes. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a consistent victim pattern in terms of backgrounds. It doesn’t seem to matter whether they come from abusive or loving family upbringings; gender doesn’t appear to play much of a role, nor does it look like prior work experience (including the military) has a significant bearing. Regardless of their past, almost every practitioner I’ve worked with has had to deal with how victimization shows up in his or her work.

    Some have faced this challenge better than others, but they all came to a realization that somehow, someway, victimization raises its ugly head regarding how they relate to clients, colleagues, and/or bosses. For example, their first instinct might be to filter out what they truly believe should be said or done. They negotiate with themselves to retreat from full honesty until it is more politically acceptable to whomever they are addressing.

  • Some of you might be saying to yourselves that you can’t personally identify with any of the victim characteristics I’ve outlined in this series. If so, I’d like to suggest you take a harder look inside.

    I believe we all host this change-inhibiting infection to one degree or another. Who among us hasn’t pulled back our directness to a client to avoid upsetting them, when a bold statement was really what was needed? I can tell you I have. In fact, my own experience with victimization and seeing how it can reduce the impact needed in client interactions has led me to be as vocal as possible about the responsibility I believe we have as practitioners to address this concern within ourselves.

    In my view, the issue isn’t deciding whether we’ve been contaminated…it’s determining how far the disease has progressed and whether it’s been contained. Victimization pollution is too prevalent in the larger society and, in particular, our profession, to avoid exposure and transmission. By remaining mindful of our susceptibility, however, we can be watchful about our thoughts and actions. In doing so, we can hopefully minimize the number of victim flare-ups we experience and regain our influencer mindset as soon as possible when they do occur.

Why is all this relevant to us as change practitioners?

Providing clients with options for how change can be realized is at the heart of our work. We are dead in the water, however, if we find ourselves working with people who have convinced themselves they have no options from which to choose. When this happens, victimization pulls the rug out from underneath us before we even get started.

How can we practice our craft with sponsors who complain about recalcitrant targets but then say they can’t move them out of the organization because their “hands are tied” with legal restrictions? How do we assist agents who grumble about poor sponsorship but are unwilling to confront leaders with the implications of their actions? How do we support targets who blame leadership for all their ills and refuse to be explicit with them about the problems they see?

How do we successfully deal with these situations? We don’t. The circumstances have to shift before we can provide any meaningful value. We can engage in implementation activities as much as we want, but we can’t “practice our craft” when we deal with victim-prone clients, or when we display any dysfunctional symptoms ourselves.

In the next post, I’ll review some perspectives I’ve found helpful with clients, other practitioners, and myself as we all contend with our own victimization vulnerability.

Go to the beginning of the series.

[1] For the purposes of this blog series, I am defining influencers as people who believe they can help shape the outcome of negative circumstances by the choices they make.

[2] Granted, maintaining this kind of impartiality is easier to accomplish when you are an external practitioner with more distance from company politics but, nonetheless, the standard for practicing the craft remains the same.

Posted on: October 03, 2012 11:19 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Victimization Breeds Easily in Work Environments

Categories: Victimization

In this series, we’re talking about the prevalence and consequences of victimization during change. In the first post, I defined a victim (one who feels trapped in negative circumstances with no option but to endure) and contrasted this mindset with that of the influencer (a person who believes he or she has choices to make that have an effect on the outcome of negative circumstances).

People exhibiting victimization tendencies spend their time complaining about unfortunate situations and dodging responsibility for addressing the resolution. This mindset plays out in all aspects of life, but one of the most common forums is the work setting.

Victimhood on the job is not hard to spot. People prone to thinking and acting in this way exhibit some or all of the following tendencies:

  • They feel caught up in what they consider negative situations but are unwilling to pursue resolution strategies they think are too expensive.
  • They are easily intimidated around authority, withhold their true thoughts/feelings, and say whatever they think will bring favor from those in charge.
  • They have trouble determining what they want but hold others accountable for their frustration.
  • They blame other people or circumstances for causing the struggles they find themselves in and don’t see themselves as contributing to the problems or needing to generate solutions.
  • They prefer to gossip about people or problems behind the scenes rather than to address them directly through open dialogue.
  • They overreact to events and, in the process, burden people with their emotional immaturity.
  • They engage in covert retaliation as “payback” for the injustices they feel occur toward them, rather than overtly confronting the issues in a way that brings them to a conclusion.

This is by no means a complete list of victim thoughts and actions in the work environment, but I think it presents a sufficient profile for this writing.

People who choose to deal with work-related challenges as influencers also display tendencies that are easy to recognize:

  • They determine to either pay the price for what they want to accomplish or pay the price for not realizing their aspirations and they don’t complain about the limited options.
  • They confront and solve their own problems as to the best of their abilities and don’t assume someone else will rescue them.
  • They feel they can either take action to address concerns themselves, sway those who are better positioned to resolve the issues, or make the necessary adjustments to succeed as best they can under the existing circumstances.
  • They surface unresolved task or relationship problems rather than hide them or let them fester.
  • They appropriately escalate problems or issues that aren’t being addressed at the lower levels.
  • They don’t engage in behind-the-scenes gossip or fault-finding.
  • They give direct and immediate feedback to anyone who misses a key standard or commitment, regardless of who they are—subordinate, peer, or boss
  • They refuse to be subjected to inappropriate/disrespectful behavior by anyone—subordinates, peers, or bosses.

There are more characteristics of influencers, but this should be enough to illustrate the difference between them and victims in the workplace.

There are many harmful implications when victimization runs rampant in an organization. Here are a few:

  • Employees with victim inclinations generally find high-performance work expectations to be overly demanding and leaders not nearly understanding enough for their taste. Yet, because they go underground with their unhappiness and criticism, they can operate for extended periods without surfacing their real concerns. This is especially true if leaders are willing to ignore and peers are willing to accommodate their behind-the-scenes complaints and condemnations.
  • Victimization in the work environment is a communicable disease in the sense that it seldom affects only one person. Like any pestilence, there must be both carriers and receptors for the virus to survive within an organization.
    • There are those who do the under-the-table complaining and criticizing and those who listen and either foster it or fail to take a stand against it.
    • Even more astonishing, there are functional and geographic groups—sometimes entire organizations—that conduct themselves in ways consistent with the victim profile. The victim mindset is a cultural pathology that is very difficult to eradicate once it becomes institutionalized.
  • Each generation of employees teaches the next how to survive (even prosper) in an environment filled with indirectness and a lack of personal accountability.
    • Victimization 101 won’t be found in the professional development curriculum, but unofficial classes are held every day when people at all levels display and tolerate that kind of thinking and actions.
    • The fact that the instruction may be informal, unintentional, and even unconscious doesn’t lessen its impact. There is no better indoctrination into a victim-based work environment than for new employees to see tough issues sidestepped, crucial problems going unaddressed, risky opportunities skirted, and ineffective/destructive people excused.
    • Most people will get the cultural message quickly when they see victim patterns exhibited by peers and management. More importantly, all but the clueless will be on board once it is apparent that senior leaders are impeccable models for how far a person can advance with the victim mindset intact.
  • Victimization is parasitic in nature in that it sucks the life out of a work environment while offering only venom in return. This is done by:
    • failing to contribute to efficiency and effectiveness, and, at times, even directly detracting from accomplishing important change goals, and
    • consuming resources that could otherwise be applied to operational excellence.

    In return, the victim mindset provides little back to the host it feeds off of except to spread its discontent and impotency.

My focus so far in this series has been on the debilitating impact victimization has on people and organizations. In the next post, I’ll explore how change amps up these problems for our clients and, in the process, catches change practitioners its grip.



Posted on: September 25, 2012 12:55 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Victimization: A Thorn in the Side of Change Execution

Categories: Victimization

Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn't matter. —Martin Seligan

Many challenges and roadblocks hinder the successful execution of major change, but few rival the obstructive power unleashed when people act as—or allow themselves to be treated as—victims. Victimization is a disease that destroys the confidence a person needs to sustain a transformative journey, and it has reached epidemic proportions among not only targets, but sponsors and agents as well. Instead of feeling they can successfully navigate the turbulence of change, those who feel victimized generally don’t see their aspirations realized.

Closer to home, victims within our own practitioner community are now so prevalent that a sense of powerlessness is fast becoming the norm for our industry. It’s bad enough that many experienced change agents display symptoms of victimization, but the problem is compounded by the fact that we are the role models and mentors for the next generation entering our field. My fear is that if we don’t come to terms with this crippling way of thinking and acting, our profession will orchestrate its own decline in impact. Over time, we’ll become less and less influential and eventually irrelevant to leaders serious about executing their initiatives. We have no hope of battling the plague of victimization among our clients if we are carriers of the blight ourselves.                                                                                    

The Basics of the Disease

Depending on the context in which it is used, the term “victimization” has many different interpretations, so I won’t validate or refute how others have used it. As I’m applying it here, a person displays a victim mentality when he or she feels trapped in negative circumstances with no option but to endure. Influencers are the antithesis of victims. These are people who believe they can help shape the outcome of negative circumstances by the choices they make.


Victims Influencers
Think they are on the receiving end of external forces (people, things, events, etc.) that determine how things unfold See themselves as one of the key influential forces in play as situations develop
Believe that, because of the surrounding conditions, they are helpless Believe that, regardless of the surrounding conditions, they can have a bearing on what will transpire
Tend to deny/avoid what they don’t like, reject/attack what they can’t change, protect/fortify their existing positions, and/or retreat into covert action or withdraw from any engagement altogether. Tend to openly acknowledge/surface what they don’t like, embrace/accommodate what they need to succeed, open/expand their boundaries, and act in ways that move things forward

Some people lack the ingenuity to formulate solutions to address unpleasant situations. These are not victims. They may be in over their heads (missing the necessary intelligence and/or creativity), or just inept, but they aren’t being victimized by their circumstances. I’m not suggesting these people don’t experience adverse consequences. I’m simply saying they don’t fit the definition of “victim” I’m outlining here.

To qualify for victim status, as I’m using the term, a person must recognize that there are alternatives to pursue, but be unwilling to explore them because it would require decisions or actions they are not inclined to engage.

  • As much as they may hate what is happening, victims see the alternative path as too expensive to take on. In this sense, “expensive” isn’t limited to costing too much money (although this might be a factor). A victim could be someone who thinks changing the way things are involves too much hard work; might incur too much ill will or retaliation; or risks jeopardizing his or her job, power, prestige, a key relationship etc. These are only a few of the currencies that could be involved when a person is deciding whether or not to try to affect what is currently going on.
  • Although victims declare they have no options, it’s more accurate to say there are none they are willing to pay for. Just because a person doesn’t like the available choices doesn’t mean choices don’t exist. A classic symptom of victimization is when a person acknowledges that “theoretically” there are avenues to pursue to address the negative situation he or she faces but designates them as infeasible because they’re “too expensive.”
  • Once an option is labeled impossible or unattainable, it is typically treated as nonexistent. Whereas the uncreative or inept don’t even recognize that options besides the status quo are available, the victim acknowledges alternatives but then swiftly disregards them and operates as if there is nothing to do but suffer under the present conditions.

Victimization isn’t an isolated phenomenon.

  • I’m not talking about the temporary feeling of being at a loss for what to do that we all experience from time to time. Everyone has confronted unexpected, negative situations and felt helpless for a while. For the chronically disenfranchised, however, this sense of powerlessness is not transitory. It is a long-term, sometimes even lifelong encounter.
  • At a certain point, helplessness becomes self-fulfilling. For example, even if some aspect of a negative situation is mitigated after action is taken, people deeply rooted in victimization tend to attribute the positive outcome to luck or dynamics outside their own capacity to shape. This is in sharp contrast to the influencer’s view that he or she is an integral part of whatever happens. Whether it is the status quo being maintained or a resolution being crafted, they feel they are an active ingredient in the outcome.

People who, on an extended basis, feel ineffectual at piloting their own future tend to become resentful and alienated.

  • Because they feel trapped, victims spend a great deal of their time and energy complaining about who or what outside themselves controls their life. They blame their predicaments on forces beyond their influence. Direct action to alter the course of things doesn’t seem viable, so they replace it with protest and criticism.
  • Sometimes the carping is overt, sometimes it is expressed under the radar, but what is important to highlight is that victims think resorting to disparaging comments and actions is their only hope of exercising any control in the situation.
  • Influencers, on the other hand, feel engaged—invested in creating an environment where some degree of success is possible, and eager to offer perspectives and ideas in support of moving forward.

Because they believe they have no choice, victims often are involved in activities they know will result in failure. They fulfill their own low-esteem prophecy by taking on tasks that are doomed and subsequently reinforce for themselves and others that they can’t succeed. Influencers see themselves and their reputation as a valuable resource that must be protected. They are not only good at what they do, they are selective about when and where they do it so as not to tarnish their image with too many and the wrong kind of failed efforts. Influencers are risk takers but they pursue dicey situations with forethought, not on a whim.

Finally, like most experiences in life, victimization is a continuum that kicks in with varying frequency, at different levels of intensity, and under assorted circumstances. That said, a person seldom feels trapped with no options in only one area of life (i.e., only at work or only with the same person or set of circumstances). Usually, if a person falls into a victim mindset in one setting, it will likely show up in other areas of his or her life as well.

It’s a plague

Victimization is so prevalent today that it has become a defining characteristic of our times, yet it is sometimes difficult to see the devastating effect it has on individuals, organizations, and the whole of society. We live in an era where we hardly notice when people shirk their responsibilities, expect something or someone else to take care of their problem, or go underground with their complaints and suggestions because it would be too expensive to openly try to do something themselves. Victimization is becoming our norm, in part, because we are adjusting to its commonness. The tolerance for capitulating to this kind of mindset as an acceptable standard has reached unprecedented highs.

In virtually all aspects of society, the level of courage and discipline required to be an influencer seems to be in short supply and is becoming more rare all the time. At its current rate of growth, the victim mindset may become dominant in some settings where the majority of the people feel marginalized—including those in leadership positions. The result would be victims leading victims…not a formula for an optimistic outlook for our species.

In the next post, I’ll focus on the implications when victimization plays itself out in organizational settings. In the third post, I’ll address how change exacerbates the likelihood and intensity of victimization, and how change practitioners inadvertently contribute to the problem. In the last post of the series, I’ll offer ways to limit victim tendencies in ourselves and others while fostering influencer thinking and behavior as much as possible.

Posted on: September 19, 2012 09:51 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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