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ATD Blog

What Talent Leaders Need to Know About Victim Loop Behaviors

Friday, October 23, 2020

“The coronavirus pandemic has been an epic test of character and determination for millions of people around the world. In the business context, CEOs have had to cope with extraordinary demands: for them, the pandemic has been an ‘ultimate leadership test,’” state the authors of a May 28 McKinsey and Company article. This can be extrapolated to all leaders in every organization.

Employees from all industries have had to make personal choices for how they respond not only to the pandemic, but also to changing work conditions and to society. We applaud the many who have been able to maintain good work ethics even through personal trials. A challenge for leaders in today’s work environment is employees who have become less productive whether working on-site or remotely.

Many employees exhibit common victim loop behaviors (VLB) identified by Mark Samuel in The Accountability Revolution and The Power of Personal Accountability. Both books define patterns of behavior for those allowing their surroundings to impede their ability to be successful (for example, ignoring their behavior, denying they have a problem, blaming others for their behaviors, rationalizing their behavior, resisting the need to change, and hiding to avoid leadership).

Leaders run a risk in taking ownership of VLB and attempting to rescue employees rather than holding them accountable to resolve their own behavior and productivity problems. To support the employee mind shift from VLB to accountability, there is value in diagnosing where the employee is. By utilizing good coaching skills and empowering employees to own and solve their behaviors (such as recognizing the need to change, owning that change, forgiving where appropriate, self-examining for change, and learning and taking action to produce different results), employees will be motivated to resolve their behavioral and productivity problems.

As a leader encounters VLB, this can be the ultimate test of leadership acumen. How does one influence subordinates to shift from VLB to accountability—particularly during a pandemic where many employees work remotely?


Gandhi stated, “The power to question is the basis for all human progress.” This is true when shifting from rescuer to coach. Mary White, in ReSTYLEing Your LIFE, proposes, “I believe if asked the right questions, most people will use their answers to lead themselves to an appropriate outcome.”

A leader’s ability to ask powerful, thought-provoking questions stems the tide of VLB. Effective questions are open-ended and allow the employee to recognize, own, self-examine, learn, and take action to produce different results. Through effective questions, leaders encourage employees to determine for themselves what the solutions are to VLB.


A few “what” and “how” questions to jumpstart employees seeing VLB and self-empowering include:

  • What is an aspect of your role (such as performance or behavior) that needs improvement? You can also describe what they need to change—being on time, finishing reports timely, for instance—and then ask, “What about this needs improvement?”
  • When does this usually occur?
  • How does this continue to occur?
  • What do you get out of this performance or behavior?
  • What is the impact or cost of this performance or behavior to others (customers, team, department, division, the organization)?
  • What could you do differently to improve?
  • What are your strengths that can contribute to this success?
  • How will we know when you have improved?

Great leaders suspend judgement and are intent on understanding what their employee is sharing. A powerful reminder is the quote from Stephen R. Covey: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Be confident in your ability to empower your employees to be whole, resourceful, capable, and creative as they self-generate new outcomes and behaviors and increase their efficacy and yours as a leader.

About the Author

Gary Westbroek is a highly accomplished organizational development consultant with more than 23 years in the LOD field; prior to that Gary spent 19 years in operational and leadership roles with Intermountain Healthcare, Inc.

As a senior leadership and organizational development consultant, Gary has found his unique blend of experience extremely helpful facilitating leadership development/consulting, talent development and partnering with Operational leaders and HR business partners focusing on increasing leadership capabilities, facility/team culture, strategy and operational/service outcomes. Gary is passionate about leadership development, design and alignment of organizational systems and processes to improve business effectiveness engage employees and achieve business results.

Gary is certified in many leadership and organizational development resources, giving him access to numerous developmental tools while coaching and working with leaders. Gary is ACC certified as an executive coach through the International Coaching Federation.

Gary is recognized as results driven, innovative, and articulate with strong interpersonal and collaborative skills. He has been instrumental in assessment, design, development, and deployment of system-wide leadership learning programs and is a consummate presenter on a wide variety of topics.

Gary has provided thought provoking keynote and workshop presentations to organizations including: The American Pediatric Surgery Managers Association, Intermountain States ASCLS Conference, Idaho Hospital Volunteer Association, Utah Future Business Leaders of America, National Healthcare Collectors Association, and Partners in Business – Utah State University. Gary holds a bachelor’s degree in English and a Masters in Public Administration.

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