In politics, “Whataboutism” has become the tool of choice. Don’t address criticism, instead deflect it by redirecting it towards your opposition or, better yet, direct it back at the questioner. “What have I done about it? Well, what have you done about it? Next question.”
But it’s not just politics where Whataboutism is prevalent. It is so easy to use when we are faced with criticism, “Well, what about … ?”, and we learn it so early in life. When my mom told me that my room was a mess and I had to clean it, it was so easy to shoot back with, “Well, what about his room?!” Deflect and redirect all in one fell swoop. It didn’t get me out of cleaning my room, but using Whataboutism made sure my brother got called out for his room, too. If I was going down, I was taking someone with me.
Unfortunately, when we enter the workplace that tactic can be a huge liability for us to development as professionals. We may not even verbalize it, but when we use the Whataboutism defense we are deflecting what could be ̶ and what I would argue is ̶ valuable feedback. In short, it prevents one from improving because “why should I stop doing that when she does the same thing?” Well, one has no idea if she is being told the same thing in private conversations, but more than that, what does it matter?
As a manager, you may be reading this and thinking, “Man, Employee X does that all the time.” Deflection of feedback is often the tactic used by the most frustrating of employees and some may even direct it back at you as the supervisor, “Well, I don’t see you doing that.” When there’s a Whataboutism culture in a company it is a huge impediment to the company’s ability to improve. Very little moves forward and negativity reigns.
If you see it happening, what can you do about it? The first step is to look at yourself ̶ are you doing it? Are you taking direct or indirect feedback and responding to it with a quick “what about you/them?” thought or comment? You have to honest with yourself because it is so easy to do it and it’s something that you likely have done without realizing it. To stop it, you have to stop it. Listen to what the feedback is and think, “How can I change my behavior or use this to improve my performance?” If you don’t, then you are just deflecting and you lose the credibility you need to address the Whataboutism in others.
From there, when you see the tactic being used, call it out for what it is. “Yes, he may do it as well, but we are talking about you right now.” It won’t be easy, but if it’s not addressed, the Whatboutism, and the resulting negativity, will just continue.