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Three Envelopes April 20, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
Tags: , , , ,

According to the apocryphal story, a person is hired to replace someone who was fired for poor performance.  Excited about his new job, he arrives in the recently vacated office to find the desk empty except for three envelopes left there by the now-departed predecessor.  Numbered 1, 2, and 3, a short note explains that they are to be opened only when the owner has really messed things up at work.  Our new hire sticks them in a drawer and forgets about them.

That is, until six months later, when he really messes things up.  Facing a tough situation, he remembers the envelopes.  He tears open envelope #1 to find a slip of paper that reads, “Blame your predecessor.”  Perfect!  He concocts a story that pins the problems on the previous employee and deftly sidesteps blame for the issue.

Another six months go by, and again our friend is in trouble.  This time, the envelopes are fresh in his mind, so he opens #2.  “Blame your coworkers,” it advises.  He does, and once again avoids taking the fall for a problem he caused.

It should come as no surprise that six months later, he’s in trouble again.  Fortunately, there is still another envelope.  He opens number 3, to find one last bit of advice: “Prepare three envelopes.”

A person’s character can be neatly judged when we see how they handle mistakes.  We are all human; we all fail.  When confronted with that failure, our next move paints a picture of how we handle responsibility and blame.  Do you step up and own the problem, or do you reach for an envelope?

Good people step up.  They acknowledge the problem, accept the blame, and work doubly hard to correct the problem.  It is a sad commentary on our world today that most people are pleasantly surprised when you do this.  While you may not be able to completely rectify the problem, you will earn some measure of respect by taking ownership of the issue.  The problem may not be fixed, but your character is intact.

Bad people step away.  They look to blame anyone except themselves, and will sacrifice anyone to protect themselves.  Blaming predecessors and coworkers will work for a while, but you will eventually run out of envelopes.  The problems remain, but you will not.  And your character will be irreparably tarnished.

We all have three envelopes available to us, every day.  We’ll all make mistakes at some point.  When that happens, don’t reach for an envelope.  Own it, fix it, and move on.


1. Susan Mazza - April 20, 2009

You have me thinking about why it is that blame seems like an easy way out. I think part of the answer is that all too often people get away with blame. If we want integrity in our organizations and our relationships we have to stop accepting blame in any form as an acceptable reason for anything,

I wrote a post a while back titled “It’s Them is the Costliest Conversation in Business and in Life” that addresses this. Think I’ll go back and see what I see with fresh eyess.

2. Jay Koch - April 20, 2009

One of my favorite horsemanship instructors says, “To err is human. To blame the horse is even more human.” I have learned that if my horse is not doing something I want him to do, it is seldom his fault. As his leader, I must take responsibility for his actions and help him do it right.

This lesson has helped me take responsibility for my dealings with people. My first thought is always, “What can I do to make this situation better?” With that attitude, I sometimes take some lumps, but over all, everyone benefits.

3. Gwyn Teatro - April 20, 2009

I find that blaming others for something for which I am responsible carries with it a measure of residual guilt that is as hard, if not harder to live with than admitting my own wrongdoing.

That’s not to say that in my lifetime I have not tried to point the finger of blame somewhere else. I think it is very human to try and protect ourselves from painful consequences and so there are probably very few of us who have not done this at least once.

Having said that, finding the courage to stand up and admit a mistake feels so much better, even liberating, in the long run.

4. Ernie Huber - April 20, 2009

Hi Chuck
I could not agree more. I have followed this religiously in my career and it has not let me down. The phrase “Fix it” is a critical part of this approach. Repeat offenses will surely start to change the perception.

5. Chuck Musciano - April 20, 2009

Thanks for extending the discussion!

@Susan: You are exactly right: when we allow others to escape by shifting the blame, we are enabling the problem and actually making things harder for everyone, including ourselves. There was a time when confronting someone when they did this was considered the right thing to do. Now we are afraid of offending anyone, so we let it slide. A little more (gentle) confrontation might help us all.

As an aside, everyone should visit Susan’s excellent blog by clicking on her name, above.

@Jay: I love the horse analogy. And the “What can I do?” approach is exactly the right way to approach almost any situation. I look forward to reading your blog, too!

@Gwyn: That twinge of guilt is your conscience quietly guiding you (and all of us) to do the right thing. We know what to do; we just need to get about the business of doing it.

Gwyn writes a great blog, too, which is linked from my Blog page. Click the Blogs tab, above, and scroll down to find her.

@Ernie: You’ve hit on a good follow-up lesson: one mistake is a learning experience. A repeated mistake is cause for alarm.

6. Marc Sirkin - April 20, 2009

I’ve been clearly slacking on leaving comments but did have some thoughts on this post.

I lived your story at a previous job and the way I remember things, it’s a double edged sword. I was more than happy to step up and accept blame, but not only was that offer ignored, it came back to bite me in the end. It is likely that I was not skilled enough at the time to fix it (there I go again, taking the blame), but the reality was a lot more gray.

That said, there is no middle ground for me, when I mess up, it’s on me and I’m the first one to say it.


7. Joe Williams - April 20, 2009

Wonderful post, Chuck. A phrase I’ve embraced, when faced with a situation that could lead to blame, is to instead say, “And therefore I’m going to do [X].” Thanks for sharing.

8. Chuck Musciano - April 21, 2009

@Marc: Bit you where? Seriously, if you find yourself in an environment where blame is heaped upon those who are mature enough to accept it, it is time to move on. That’s a whole separate topic: dysfunctional organizations that trump an individual’s effort to demonstrate good behaviors. I also agree that there is no middle ground: accepting responsibility is a binary thing. Just like you can’t be a little bit pregnant, you can’t be a little bit responsible.

@Joe: Good advice. Consciously rerouting your thought process like that avoids lots of unfortunate situations you’ll have to go back and correct later.

9. Lynn M - April 21, 2009

Excellent advice those last 7 words! Move on is what you can do and everyone else will do if you own your mistakes. For those who never say they are sorry or own up to their faults, you’re missing out on something very satisfying when it comes to communicating with others. It’s almost magical how you can transform someone who is angry and confrontational by taking ownership for whatever part you have taken in what’s upsetting them. Their anger has no place to go but to melt away and often you find that they become apologetic themselves or admit their own flaws. Blaming others diminishes the level of respect people have for you in the workplace.

10. Itchy - July 24, 2009

While I agree with the sentiments about owning fault expressed here, I don’t think that is the intended lesson from the original story. Most versions are about an outgoing politician leaving the envelopes behind. The tale is not about the problems with blame in the workplace. It’s about the fleeting nature of power for anyone beholden to the populace. Things will always go wrong, and the public will always want a sacrifice, and you get two free passes: blame the system (or your predecessor if you’re from the same party), and blame the outside aggressor (or your predecessor if you’re from the other party)… and after you’ve done both, the public will already be blaming you, so it’s time to pass the torch.

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