Take One Minute to Stamp Out Victim Mentality on Your Team: The Throw-the-Red-Flag Practice Drill

You have no idea how much victim mentality shows up during your conversations at work. Not even close.

I just finished a month of coaching sessions with 35 high level executives and here are examples of the vintage victim language I heard:

“After several years of success, people naturally grow complacent.”

“Most people around here think we already have too many protocols to follow.”

“My team has plenty of experienced employees nearing retirement, and they don’t want to change.”

“That’s a great idea, but there’s uncertainty in the marketplace and in government policies. The timing isn’t right.”

No doubt you’ve heard similar remarks every work day. On occasion, you’ve been the one uttering them. But did you distinguish these phrases as victim language or did they pass as inescapable obstacles that curtail any chance to improve performance?

Each of these phrases captures the prototypical victim stance: “I’d change how I’m acting if only the required effort weren’t so unreasonable, and the risks could be removed.” Unfortunately, most of us are well-practiced in blaming triggered by a victim mentality, and under-practiced in taking accountability for our mindsets.

challenge-flagAs a leader, do you acknowledge what’s at stake? Victim language puts the onus of the actions that you choose on to someone or something outside of your control. This pattern paves the way for a lifetime of excuses and missed opportunities. Unless you disturb your team’s victim language by inviting them to recognize and take accountability for their mindset, they will never discover their full performance capacity. Zero chance!

I’m going to teach you a field-tested practice drill that reliably produces breakthroughs with my senior management clients. And it takes only one minute to practice. I adapted this approach from pro football, so it’s appropriately known as the “Throw-the-Red-Flag Practice Drill.”


In pro football, a coach who questions a call by the officials can throw a red flag to request for an instant review of a videotape replay.  Bad calls get overturned.  In a similar process, my clients toss red flags to call out victim language and initiate instant rephrasing to take accountability for their current results.

In my workshops, I’ll startle attendees the first time I pull a red flag from my pocket and toss it at a participant who’s just uttered a victim statement. But I’m amazed how quickly and effortlessly they catch on and look forward to doing this drill.

Here’s a classic example. I was delivering a presentation for Vistage, an executive education network, and I had just completed a module about taking accountability for your choices, actions, and mindset. I asked the group, “What are your concerns about using this five-step method?” Jerry, the CEO for an executive search firm, answered, “I lack the self-discipline to stay with any kind of structured approach.” I threw down a red flag, walked over to Jerry and said, “Do you really mean to suggest you have deficient genes or an ingrained personality flaw?” I stayed silent, allowing time for the group to contemplate the destructive impact of a victim mindset that left Jerry with no capacity to employ any structured learning approach.  I then reframed it. “Jerry, could you say it more accurately?  Could you say ‘In the past, when I’ve been given structured formats to follow, I haven’t been reliable in choosing to execute the prescribed steps?’” Everyone heard the infusion of power when the wording shifted to recognize Jerry’s own choices as the root cause of an unwanted outcome—not some fixed personality trait.

I repeated the same coaching drill when I heard participants offer familiar excuses. “You get dragged into the minutia,” is a phrase where the speaker has conceded control to someone else who is doing the dragging. “I don’t want to ruffle feathers,” implies there’s no way of communicating a difficult message that won’t upset colleagues. These CEOs spontaneously started calling each other out for adopting a victim posture by asserting, “Red flag.” At the end of my seminar, they decided to install this practice drill in their future monthly meetings.

Once I break the ice by throwing the first red flag, senior managers feel freed up to find humor in calling one another out for victim language. In turn, the coaching to rephrase the statement by taking accountability takes about one minute. It’s an incredibly efficient method of real-time deliberate practice, and surprisingly easy to install.


In this practice drill, there are two steps you will implement at any moment that victim language occurs in a conversation—on a phone call, during a staff meeting, or talking with a new acquaintance on an airline flight (Note: I actually threw a red flag at an Army Colonel sitting in my row on an airplane. Months later, he hired me to speak to his troops).

Step 1. Identify victim language that occurs when people blame feelings, circumstances or past history for their perceived lack of power. Be alert for victim phrases like:

  • I can’t…
  • I should or shouldn’t…
  • I have to…
  • I had no choice…
  • If only you…
  • You make me feel….
  • It’s the nature of the business/my role to….
  • If only…
  • I’m too old, young, a compulsive organizer, not tech-savvy
  • They say….  (they refers to the folks at headquarters, the legal department, the government, the Army)
  • It’s impossible to….
  • Everyone agrees….
  • Engineers are… (substitute any stereotype for a profession)
  • Reality is…

Step 2: Practice taking accountability to reveal the full array of choices available in a given situation.

The key phrase in taking accountability is “I choose” or “I choose not to…” to describe actions taken or not taken that contribute to tolerating unfavorable circumstances or insufficient progress toward a goal.

Here are examples from my executive coaching where these two steps are applied to three basic categories of victim phrases. Notice the new opportunities for action that got arise as a result of using this two-step practice drill.

Category 1: The “I inherited bad genes” card.

  • Victim language: “I’m a compulsive organizer.”
  • Taking accountability: “I’ve chosen to fabricate an apparent personal deficiency as an excuse for refusing to delegate to my direct reports.”
  • Opening for new courses of action: “I will reframe my proclivity for being organized not as an excuse but as a strength. I will be organized in allotting time and in preparing to train my direct reports so I can delegate tasks effectively.”

Category 2:  The “right circumstances aren’t in place” card.

  • Victim language: “My time gets shang-haied.”
  • Taking accountability:  “I chose to let other people’s requests for my time take precedence over my plans for privacy to work on high priority projects.”
  • Opening for new courses of action: “I will protect my time slots for high priority goals. I will alert my team in advance when I really need to concentrate with no interruptions.”

– OR –

  • Victim language: “There are lots of people in this company who think we already have too many protocols to follow.”
  • Taking accountability: “I chose to put more credence in a frequently used complaint from my peers rather than thinking for myself.”
  • Opening for new courses of action: “I can be more discerning regarding which protocols are unnecessary which are effective. In fact, a protocol for the process of strategic decision-making would be much better than our current making-it-up-on-the-fly approach.”

Category 3: The “I can’t bring myself to feel differently” card.

  • Victim language: “After several years of success, people naturally grow complacent.”
  • Taking accountability: “I chose to make up a conclusion that successful people have no choice but to feel complacent.”
  • Opening for new courses of action: “Success can be a source of confidence to fire up people to be even more successful. I can assume leadership to bring about the necessary changes to produce sustainable success.”


As victims, we create a charade that there is really no choice but to cave in to unreasonable obstacles. As accountability takers, we acknowledge our choice to more accurately perceive our sense of what conditions constitute unreasonable effort and risk.

As truth about your accountability replaces the self-deception of a victim stance, unreasonable effort and risk cease to be barriers. You can make new choices, even if only to test the supposed severity of obstacles you anticipate. Essentially, you shift your power from being a victim with no say in the matter to being the cause of the results you produce.

Can you fathom a more valuable leadership legacy than creating an organization with zero tolerance for victim language and behavior? It’s the only way to tap into your team’s full performance capacity. Go ahead. Start throwing red flags!

new-bookPortions of this blog are adapted from Art’s new book, Competent is Not an Option. Build an Elite Leadership Team Following the Talent Development Game Plan of Sports Champions. To order his book from Amazon.com, click on the book cover.

If you want to purchase red flags for your organization, my source is The Beistle Company, and your can order their product from Amazon.com or partycheap.com.