Take Ownership of Your Actions by Taking Responsibility
September 3, 2012 Editor 0
Are you stalled in a project at work, waiting on someone else to take initiative to get things moving? Are you in a broken professional relationship — with a manager, coworker, or employee — hoping the other person assumes blame and fixes the issue? Are you looking for an easy way to get focused or improve your productivity — a silver bullet from an unexpected source?
One of the most common momentum killers I’ve seen in my professional life is our propensity to wait for someone else to act, take initiative, assume blame, or take charge. But very often, no help comes.
One year ago, I heard Tal Ben-Shahar speak about this concept; he learned it from Nathaniel Branden, the father of the self-esteem movement. According to Ben-Shaher, Branden believed that taking responsibility was the first step to developing a healthy sense of self and that we internalize the idea of taking responsibility when we realize, “no one is coming.”
It’s a liberating concept. Help is not coming. The responsibility is yours, and it starts with developing a belief or habit of mind that you, as an individual, are accountable for the quality and timeliness of an outcome, even when you’re working with others. It doesn’t always mean you have authority over a project. Nor does it mean that you shouldn’t involve others. But it does mean you own the obligation to take action and deliver results.
This may be particularly important for young leaders, often characterized as a coddled generation. Millennials are history’s most educated generation and often come from smaller families where helicopter parents watched over them carefully. Many managers perceive them as needing guidance, structure, and constant feedback. And in a world of political and financial bailouts, they (and other generations) may begin to see personal, professional, and social problems as issues for others to solve.
But leaders of all ages could afford to act as if help is not coming more often. And doing so may start with three simple points of understanding.
First, by recognizing the difference between fault and responsibility, we can eschew the blame game and take ownership of difficult problems. Very early in my first year of business school, we were discussing whether an executive in a case study was to blame for a problem in his company and whether fixing it was his responsibility. Many of us were conflating the two terms: fault and responsibility. A classmate, Curt, pointed out, “There’s a big difference between fault and responsibility. A leader may be responsible for a situation even if it’s not his fault. The blame doesn’t matter.”
Often, we have to deal with situations for which we’re not at fault. But fault is backward-looking, and responsibility is forward-looking. Fixating on blame delays taking corrective action and inhibits learning. Focusing on responsibility offers a sense of peace.
Honda CEO Takanobu Ito may be demonstrating that concept in real time with his recent actions after the release of the new Honda Civic quickly fell short of expectations. Sales dropped 15%. Ito took decisive action, publicly assuming full responsibility for the model’s reception. The origination of the failed concept — his or not — did not matter. All that mattered was claiming ownership of the issue and charting a path forward. Honda quickly followed up by announcing a new release for 2013, a year ahead of the original plan. In the words of executive vice president John Mendel, “…the comments of Consumer Reports and our customers have not gone unnoticed. We are appropriately energized.”
Second, as the above example alludes, this ownership can free us to drive results. In the environments in which I’ve worked, the most productive people and those most likely to succeed were those who were proactive about finding and solving problems, and comfortable acting with increasing autonomy and decreased oversight. Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying, “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.” All of us can think of many times when the leaders we admired declined to wait for help and instead pioneered solutions. It’s only when we, as individuals, take full responsibility for a problem that we focus our full attention on it and feel the pressure we need to drive results.
Finally, by owning a problem and taking action, we can help others. A few months ago, I started picking up a new snack bar at my local Starbucks, produced by the unusually named Two Moms in the Raw. The story of its founder, Shari Leidich is a great example of this concept. In 2004, Leidich, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. According to Entrepreneur.com, shortly after starting treatment, an herbalist advised her to start a raw food diet, but when she did, she found that most of the products were unappetizing. So she made her own. Soon friends and family were requesting so many of her products that she could no longer give them away. By 2006, she was making products for sale, and in 2010, Two Moms in the Raw had revenues of more than $1 million. Leidich saw that there was not a good solution for someone cooking for a healthy, appetizing, raw food snack, so she took responsibility for making one, and in the process, created something that may help thousands of others in the process.
In a world where problems are getting more complex, determined and innovative problem-solving will flow from those who live as if help is not coming. Living with responsibility can make us stronger and more action-oriented individuals. It’s up to you to make change and take responsibility for outcomes in your professional life. What are you waiting for?
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