Bruce Tulgan, CEO of Rainmaker Thinking, shares his insight on ‘personal responsibility’ in the workplace.
Personal responsibility: Staying focused on what one can control directly – principally one’s own thoughts, words, and actions – and controlling one’s responses in the face of factors outside one’s own control.
Here is the reality: in any situation, there are factors beyond our control. For example, I feel gravity and time are constantly holding me back! And in any situation, there are factors within our control: our own thoughts, words, and actions. Almost anyone can focus on those outside factors or those inside factors.
In fact, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that most people – of all ages – have a tendency to point to outside factors beyond the control of the individual when explaining their own short-comings and failures, not to mention the successes of others.
Funnily enough, most people also have a strong tendency to point to factors within the direct control of the individual when it comes to our own successes as well as the failures and short-comings of others. So at least the good news is that most people know how to focus on factors within the control of the individual. It’s just that we take our focus off those factors when we make excuses, blame others, and complain.
When it comes to teaching personal responsibility, the key is keeping the focus on factors within the control of the individual. Teaching them to ask themselves every step of the way: What is within my control right now? Where will I focus my attention and energy? What are my options? What’s the plan? What are my next steps? What are my next thoughts, words, and actions?
Consider the following factors that people in the workplace commonly list when asked to brainstorm factors that get in their way at work.
- Resource constraints – insufficient information, people, material, or tools
- Limited time
- Too much work
- Other people not doing their part
- Things are constantly changing
- Competing priorities
- Company policies, rules, regulations, and procedures
- The way things have always been done around here
- Too many low priority distractions
- Conflict between and among employees
- My manager is often unavailable
- Unclear lines of authority
- I answer to too many different people
- Inconsistency from one manager to another
I’m sure you can you think of recent examples of many of these. Think of one example of one of these factors you’ve experienced recently. It is very easy to focus on the extent to which that factor outside your control constrained your options and left you powerless. Right?
Focusing on that moment – where it is easy to focus on the factors outside one’s own control – is the key to teaching young people to increase their sense of personal responsibility. In our career seminars with young employees, we ask them to think of examples of these factors outside their own control – examples within their own experience that have left them feeling powerless.
Then we teach them to ask themselves:
What did YOU do? (usually the answer is “nothing”)
What could YOU have done differently in retrospect?
What were your options?
What thoughts, words, and actions could you have taken?
Next we ask them to look ahead and ask another set of questions:
Can you anticipate this factor getting in your way in the future?
What will be outside my control?
What will be inside my control? (My own thoughts, words, actions)
What options might I have?
What concrete steps will I take to make the greatest contribution I can?
We call this set of questions, “response power”. Learning to use “response power” is a very powerful way to learn and grow when it comes to taking greater personal responsibility. The idea is to think about those times when it feels like “there really is nothing YOU can do” and then reframe those situations to focus on the fact that there is always “something YOU can do.”
About the author
Best-selling author and global business advisor Bruce Tulgan is the founder and CEO of a leading US management research and training firm.