Did I reveal the victim mentality in myself in a recent blog post? I think I did.

In an article for my blog a few months ago, what I wrote was perceived as critical of certain physician leaders. I linked to examples of their writing that were popular with physician readers. They pertained to issues that physicians find very intrusive, that promote burnout, and often interfere with the practice of medicine. 

In quoting their articles, I made it look like I was critical of their writing, rather than simply pointing out the popularity of such topics with their audiences. I received several critical comments from my readers.

After trying to defend myself, I finally came to the realization that I was wrong and needed to apologize to the authors of those articles. But I made a major blunder, forgetting the proper way to apologize that I previously described, or the way that Michael Hyatt recommends when admitting a mistake.

Here is what I wrote:

“…In closing, let me apologize if I somehow seemed critical of your efforts.”

Do you see the blunder? I should have written this:

“…In closing, let me apologize for being critical of your efforts.”

A reader pointed out my mistake, and further stated that an appropriate apology does not include the word “if” but simply accepts responsibility and asks for forgiveness.

reveal the victim mentality fails at an apology

I was clearly not communicating as a leader, because what a leader does is own up to a mistake, apologize, and make a commitment to fix things going forward. On the contrary, I was approaching it with a victim's mentality.

In writing this post, I started by writing about the difference between leaders and victims. But I feared that my intentions might be misinterpreted. I am not writing about true victims, who have been bullied, or harmed by their coworkers or mistreated by their supervisors.

No, I’m talking about our colleagues, associates and employees with the victim mentality. They may seek leadership positions based on seniority and want the recognition of being a director, vice president, or CEO. But, rather than thinking and acting like a true leader, they fall prey to the victim mentality.


The victim mentality can be described as the tendency to believe we're the victim of the negative actions of others, even in the absence of clear evidence to support such a belief. This tendency then colors how we think and behave.

It's a particularly destructive belief system because it prevents us from taking responsibility, or accepting even reasonable risks. This stunts personal growth and causes others to avoid engaging with us as teammates. Harboring a victim mentality is antithetical to becoming an effective leader.  Abandoning the victim mentality is vital to being successful as a leader.

However, when subtle, this mindset can be difficult to recognize.

looking for clues to reveal the victim mentality

So, I thought that would be useful to review the “tells” that reveal the victim mentality, and contrast them with the behaviors of the real leaders in our midst.

Why Bother?

Why should we learn to distinguish leaders from victims? There are several reasons:

  1. Challenging problems are better solved by true leaders.
  2. Organizations with good leaders are more successful and enduring.
  3. Our own personal and professional growth is accelerated when working for great leaders.
  4. Our teams will be more successful if we avoid hiring those with the victim mentality, because they need to be constantly supervised, their productivity is low, and they hurt morale.

On the other hand, a good leader will inspire and motivate employees, volunteers, and members of an organization.

I believe that physicians are natural leaders, but we sometimes fail, as I did, to demonstrate our leadership skills and attitudes.

Top Clues Reveal the Victim Mentality

Here are examples of words and deeds that expose this way of thinking.

A victim…

needs to be told what to do.

By following specific instructions, the victim avoids the possibility of being blamed for a poor outcome. They don’t want to improvise or be put in a position of finding a creative solution. A leader wants to be given a goal and left to decide on her own how to achieve it.

is quick to assign blame to others.

When a project falters, victims point out that they did what they were told to do, and someone else failed to deliver. Leaders strive for 100% accountability. They will support others to accomplish their parts in a project, while also completing theirs.

fails to seek help when struggling.

They can’t admit that they don’t have the knowledge or skills to accomplish their assignments. They blame someone else for giving them too much responsibility. Leaders admit their shortcomings and seek expert mentors and coaches to help them learn how to finish their tasks.

help needed reveal the victim mentality

hates to be seen as a failure.

A victim avoids failing by taking little or no risk. Leaders understand that growth comes from taking on challenges and being uncomfortable. Consequently, leaders admit their mistakes, and welcome failures, as long as they lead to learning and eventual success.

complains more, and takes action less, than a leader.

Leaders will identify a problem, and whine about it briefly, but then dedicate themselves to identifying and enacting solutions. The victim identifies problems but offers no solutions.

is a downer to be around.

The victim is focused on how hopeless circumstances are. Pessimism and resignation are central to the victim mentality. Leaders are optimistic, hopeful and encouraging.

reveal the victim mentality depressed

is motivated to achieve by the accolades they'll receive.

Leaders achieve because they find it fulfilling, and are interested in overcoming important challenges. The victim often reminds us of their accomplishments and constantly seeks affirmation.

projects their own weaknesses, shortcomings and insecurities onto others.

When a person with the victim mentality says “I know that they don’t respect me and they want me to fail,” it’s because they're projecting their own attitudes and thought patterns onto others. Leaders don’t spend much time thinking or talking about others' negative thoughts. They focus on getting results.

expresses feelings of entitlement.

Victims expect promotions due to seniority and “time served.” A leader wants to be judged based on performance and results.

is complacent about learning.

If his skills are lacking, someone else should help the victim out. A leader is committed to lifelong learning.

focuses on what’s wrong.

She dwells on the circumstances that are beyond her control. The leader acknowledges reality, but is focused on problems that can be controlled or influenced.

does not apologize sincerely.

They will use a statement such as: “I’m sorry if what I said…” A leader expresses a real apology and owns the mistake and its resolution.

Statements that reveal the victim mentality vs. leadership mentality:

Victim mentality…

Leader mentality…

Just tell me what to do, and I'll do it. Tell me the goal, and I’ll figure out how to accomplish it.
I completed my part of this project, but the others on the team didn’t, so I can’t be held responsible for not meeting the deadline. I should have checked in with my colleagues and offered support if they were struggling.
My boss knew I had no experience in this area. There was no way that I could complete this assignment. I’ll find the help I need to in order to finish this project.
I did my part appropriately. I stuck to what I knew. It was Jim’s failure that led to the delays in this project. I made a bad decision. But I’m ready to apply what I’ve learned to the next iteration.
There is no way for me to do this job. With all of the regulations, paperwork, and staffing reductions it’s just not possible. There are certainly some challenges, but let’s see if we can find a way to make things better.
I’m so upset. Things are going from bad to worse and there’s no end in sight. I doubt anything is going to change. We’ve got some tough challenges, but I'm excited to be working with a group of capable people. I think we can make meaningful progress.
My part in completing this project was instrumental. I hope the board knows how much effort I devoted to the project. Without me, nothing would have been accomplished. This project was very important. It was great being part of this dedicated team and rewarding to see the number of people that we helped.
I know that the director thinks I don’t know what I'm doing and is talking to all of his friends about me. I don’t know what she thinks about this assignment, but as long as she meets the deadline, I’ll be happy with what we’ve accomplished.
She better choose me for the manager position. I’ve been here longer than anyone else and never been written up. I’m focused on building a great team and trying new approaches to generating revenues and reducing expenses.
I don’t need coaching to know how to do my job. I’m grateful for the opportunity to meet with my mentor and learn new ways of doing things.
With the cutback in hours, and reduction in my budget this year, I don’t think I can match last year’s results. There are some major challenges. But I think with greater productivity, we can meet the customers’ needs and create new business.
I'm sorry if I didn't complete this task the way you wanted me to. I’m sincerely sorry that I failed to follow through as I promised. Here is how I intend to fix the problem and rebuild your trust.

Final Thoughts

I may have just scratched the surface with this list. But you get the idea.

Now listen carefully to the conversations around you, when interviewing a potential new hire, or sitting in a meeting. And watch the behaviors of others.

Are they expressing the leadership mentality, or do they reveal the victim mentality?

Do the questions on the left side of the table seem more comfortable to you? Or do you speak using the language on the right? Be honest with yourself. Do a little introspection. Have you used the language of the victim or the language of the leader more?

We all fall prey to feeling like victims at times. But the quicker we can catch ourselves and switch back into the leadership mode, the better for us and our organization.


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Next Steps

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