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Schlenker’s Triangle

 

Techniques > Conversation techniques > Excuses > Schlenker’s Triangle

No control | Unclear obligation | No obligation | See also

 

Schlenker and colleagues describe three common excuses that people use to pardon themselves when they have been associated with a failure of some kind. They define excuses as statements or attributions that allow one to minimize personal responsibility for events, both for oneself and with others. In this way, excuses both regulate emotions and serve as impression management.

The model describes three aspects of responsibility, for which excuses are made:

  • Prescription: What is supposed to be done
  • Identity: The sense of self
  • Situation/Event: relevant to the prescription

No control

A person accused of something may excuse themselves by saying they were unable to apply control. This can include:

  • Control of nature: The rain got it wet.
  • Control of objects: The bag leaked.
  • Control of others: He wouldn't hold it properly.
  • Control of self: I couldn't help it.

Unclear obligation

When a person is accused of not doing something, they may reply that it was not clear that they had any specific responsibility.

Lack of clarity is a usefully vague tool in making excuses as it turns a binary knowing/not knowing situation into an infinitely variable set of uncertain possibilities, any of which may represent misunderstanding.

  • You didn't tell me I should do that as well.
  • Who said I should do that, specifically?
  • I don't normally have responsibility for that.

No obligation

Beyond having an unclear obligation, the person can deny having any obligation at all.

In contrast to 'unclear obligation', which uses vagueness to remove responsibility, this method polarizes the issue, taking the person out of the equation altogether.

  • I did not agree to do that.
  • It said 'where possible' -- it was not possible in this case.
  • It's not in my job description.

See also

Obligation principle

 

Schlenker, B. R. (1997). Personal responsibility: Applications of the triangle model. In L. L. Cummings & B. M. Staw (Eds.), Research in Organizational Behavior (pp. 241–301). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Schlenker, B. R., Britt, T. W., Pennington, J., Murphy, R., & Doherty, K. (1994). The triangle model of responsibility. Psychological Review, 101, 632–652.

 

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