Out with the Old (Blame), In with the New (Positivity)

January 4, 2010 / General /

By Ryan W. Quinn

Happy New Year from The Lift Blog!

As is common with new years, I find myself thinking about change, and thought I might begin our new year on this blog by sharing a story about change. The story is about Texas Christian University’s (TCU’s) football team and football coach, who are ranked #4 in the nation and play #6 Boise State University in the Fiesta Bowl tonight. For those who do not follow football, this is a big deal for a number of reasons. It is a big deal for TCU because (a) this is the most complete and highest-ranked team the school has ever had, (b) they are playing in a game that, technically, only teams from “big money” conferences are supposed to play in, (c) it is even possible (if unlikely) that in one of the polls they could be voted in as national champions if they win the game, and (d) if they win this game (and, frankly, even if they simply play well in this game), it could catapult their program into being perennial contenders on the national level.

All of these reasons make the game exciting, but what make this game interesting for a blog on what leaders can learn from positive organizational scholarship is the story of the personal transformation of Gary Patterson, the coach of the TCU Horned Frogs. He described this personal transformation in a news conference he gave a couple of months ago.

A Positive Transformation

I learned about Patterson’s news conference from two MBA students of mine, Kristyn Kelly and Natalie Schafer. They heard the story on National Public Radio. The relevant part of the story for our purposes is captured in the following quote:

TCU’s transformation from bottom-dweller to national title contender was accompanied by a transformation of its coach. In his weekly news conference, Patterson described how he used to operate at TCU, repeatedly chewing out his players for their mistakes. He said he slowly came to understand that his negativity was more about him than the players:

[Patterson:] I’m not going to keep talking about, “Well, if you don’t do this you’re going to get beat.” That’s something maybe Gary Patterson earlier years might have done to make myself feel better. If it happened [i.e., if the player failed to do what Patterson told them to do], then, well, I told them. And that’s not what I’m going to do. I’m going to talk about the positives and what we need to do to win this ball game and maybe that’s why this team’s changed, because I’m not dealing in negatives all the time.

Patterson’s transformation is a subtle and powerful one. If we only look at the surface, we might think that he just decided to “focus on the positive.” But there is more going on here. More important than focusing on the positive is why Patterson began focusing on the positive. It is because he realized why he was focusing on the negative: not to help the team, but to make himself feel better. He is saying that he learned (he doesn’t tell us how he learned it, unfortunately) that when he pointed out his players’ flaws, he was doing it so that if the team lost later on, he would have something to blame it on. If they lost, he could say, “See, I told you we would lose if you didn’t change X.”

The Dangers of Blame

In the old days, when Patterson focused on the negative in his players, his behavior sent them a powerful message. It told them that their coach was more concerned about protecting himself from failure and its consequences was more important to him than they were.”

I don’t know what went on in Patterson’s locker rooms, but I have seen other leaders–in business and academics as well as in sports–take similar action to protect themselves from the consequences of failure. When we try to protect ourselves from the consequences of a short-term failure, we often experience broader-ranging and consequences more dire than the short-term failure itself.

Players and employees may not always be able to articulate the message that their leaders are sending, but they almost always feel what these actions are saying. They undermines trust, learning, motivation, and much more. Blame (or even preparing ourselves to blame others) is a symptom of what Terry Warner [1] calls “self-betrayal,” a condition in which we make ourselves increasingly tense, petty, vindictive, easily offended, or unkind because of the excuses we tell ourselves or others. A locker room of finger-pointing is not likely to lead a team to unprecedented accomplishments on the football field or in the marketplace.


Somehow, Gary Patterson came to understand that his reasons for focusing on the negative were lies and excuses that he was telling to himself. The transformation has been profound. I suspect there are other reasons for the profound success of his football team (his record is 85-27 as the head football coach of TCU) in addition to the change in his personal approach to developing players, but I doubt that there are any reasons that are as profound or wide reaching in their impact. In Lift, we review scientific research with regards to the impact a person has on others when they begin to care about others more than about blaming others. These impacts include organizations, teams, and communities that are more

  1. energized,
  2. resilient,
  3. focused on integrity,
  4. trusting, and
  5. capable of learning, innovating, and experimenting.

We certainly saw this on the football field with TCU this year. Also, as Patterson shows us, when we overcome our tendencies to blame others, we focus more on the positive. A focus on the positive can improve a team, organization, or community because they are inspired by positive possibilities, they feel less threatened about the changes they will need to make to achieve those possibilities, and they are more likely to work together toward those ends.

A New Year

Tonight Gary Patterson and his team will kick off their new year by trying to achieve new heights that their football program has never achieved before. As we kick off a new year–and a new decade–of leadership and scholarship on positive organizing it might be useful to take Gary Patterson as a guide in creating our own resolutions. A little less blame and a little more positivity may take us and our organizations a long way.

[1] Warner, C. T. 2001. Bonds that make us free: Healing our relationships, coming to ourselves. Salt Lake City, UT: Shadow Mountain. See also Leadership and Self-Deception by the Arbinger Institute.