Jul 25, 2020

Sometimes No One's at Fault And We Should Accept That

Accidents, tragedies, or negative outcomes, all entice a usual reaction: who’s at fault for this? Who is to blame? Our instinct drives us in that direction. The reasoning seems pretty obvious: if something bad has happened, it must have been because of someone screwed up by being negligent or maybe they were malevolent all along.

However, sometimes there’s no one we should be blaming. If we think in calm and measured way—before scapegoating—it becomes obvious that no one’s guilty.

I recently saw the video of killing of Haramabe, a silverback gorilla, by Cincinnati Zoo authorities. The video shows a disoriented, agitated gorilla dragging a toddler—who had fallen into the enclosure after climbing the 3-foot fence—with intense force. After deliberating for ten minutes, the Zoo authorities decided to shoot the gorilla. Silverback gorilla is an endangered specie and Harambe was only half-way through his expected lifespan. Naturally, the action invited a ton of angry reactions.

Who’s to blame?

But there’s no one to blame if you ascertain all the facts of the case.

To me, there’s no one to blame. It just an unfortunate incident that happened with no one at an obvious fault. You could invoke the moral culpability in keeping animals away from their natural habitat, but that is far removed from the incident.

In 2009, Gene Weingarten, touched on a similar subject with his Pulitzer winning story, ”Fatal Distraction.” Around 15-25 times a year, a parent—an “otherwise loving and attentive parent”—forgets a child in the car’s backseat resulting in a tragic death. Such a horrifying mistake would register as gross neglect to must of us, but we should ask, can our disgust be more than the “lifelong sentence of guilt” that the parent has to bear? This isn’t wilful negligence, it’s a mistake like any other.

Memory is a machine, and it is not flawless. Our conscious mind prioritizes things by importance, but on a cellular level, our memory does not. If you’re capable of forgetting your cellphone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child

— David Diamond, professor of molecular physiology, University of South Florida

The search to blame someone can actually exacerbate the situation as Margarethe Wiersema, professor of management at University of California, observed in her study of CEO firings. Often, because of poor earnings and growth, the board of directors relent under the pressure and dismiss the CEO. However, having a new head doesn’t translate to a turnaround; in fact, the decline could potentially accelerate.

Typically a CEO gets fired not because the board has thoughtfully and deliberately concluded that it’s time for a change at the top but because investors, concerned about poor performance, demand a change. Board members, who have little idea how to address the underlying problems that got their company into trouble in the first place, seek to appease investors in the short term by handing them the CEO’s head on a platter.

Company performance relative to industry average failed to improve significantly after bringing in a new CEO. And performance lagged behind that of companies with routine CEO successions. I couldn’t find a single measure suggesting that CEO dismissals have a positive effect on corporate performance.

It’s politician’s syllogism at work:

  1. We must do something
  2. This is something
  3. Therefore, we must do this.

Rather than asking who’s to blame, the more productive thing is to assess a situation from everyone’s point of view, understand that humans are fallible, and think what we can do improve the future outcomes. Blame is an easy game, but compassion is harder.

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