Some days I feel powerless. It starts with a trigger.
My manager uses “that tone.” My kids “overlook” their home chores. My direct report hasn’t completed the task that I thought was a given. A payment to one of my vendors is late because of an “error in paperwork” that no one called to my attention.
It could be anything. But the feeling is like hearing fingernails drawn down a chalkboard. It’s a low-level kind of irritation that can erupt into frustration or even anger.
But when I look under the surface of this pattern, I notice that one of the consistent elements is that I feel like a victim of circumstance. I feel like someone is “doing this to me.” I feel overwhelmed and powerless.
I feel powerless in my attempts to get my boss to change her tone. I feel defeated after numerous attempts to convince my kids to complete their chores. I feel upset by the fact that I “have to” follow up on small details that I thought I had successfully delegated and that now I’d prefer to ignore. I feel angry about the bureaucracy behind inefficient systems and embarrassed that one of my vendors is paying the price by having to wait for payment.
At my worst moments, I blame.
I blame them. I blame the past and the future. I blame those “other” people who don’t have as much sense as I do. And as long as I blame, then I am powerless to change my circumstances.
Blame feels somewhat comfortable—but not entirely. It keeps us off balance, and it allows others to be in charge. But sometimes, it feels easier to hand over the reins to someone else—at least temporarily.
After all, isn’t it the responsibility of my boss to be kind and respectful? Isn’t it the kids’ fault that they aren’t performing their home chores? Wasn’t it the fault of my direct report that she didn’t complete her task? Isn’t that lack of timely payment to my vendor ultimately the fault of the person who designed the inefficient system? (Or maybe the fault of the person who is currently implementing it?)
The operative word is “fault.” “Fault” may point us to some arbitrarily selected moment in time when we are convinced the problem originated, but the dynamic doesn’t end there. If we look past “fault” and “blame” and we instead mine for responsibility and accountability, then we can start to re-assert our power.
Do you remember your mother telling you, “you can’t change another person, you can only change yourself?” Well, it’s still true. Of course, we can influence others, and we spend a great deal of time and energy trying to figure out how to persuade effectively. But at the end of the day, we really can only change our own behavior, and that is where our power lies.
So after I get fed up with blaming, and with the powerless, victim-like sensation that accompanies blame, I look inside, to the broader dynamics that hold a system in place. I seek Radical Ownership.
In Radical Ownership, I am the master (so to speak) of my destiny. I get to decide my own next move. I make the assumption that I have a role in the problem, and I look at what I may have contributed to the situation and at the choices I have as I move forward. I spend less time blaming and more time problem-solving. Essentially, I look at how the pattern emerged, what role I play in it now, and how I can best create or influence the future that I want.
Please don’t misread this message. This is NOT to say that you are responsible for what others do. It is dangerous to “take on” responsibility for another person’s actions or behaviors. But the place of personal power resides in the moment that you look at yourself and how you can contribute to a solution and what YOU can do next that will lead to a better outcome.
Let’s look at step one. First, I suggest you examine the pattern retrospectively. You might ask yourself, “what might I have done—purposefully or accidentally—that contributed to the situation we are in now?” Or, “When did this pattern start?” (As a reminder, this is an opportunity to step out of blame, and into ownership. This is not a time to replay the old story about someone else being at fault. This is a chance for you to re-assert your power by understanding the points of influence that you may have over the pattern.)
If I apply this to the case about my kids not doing their chores, this question might illuminate the moments that I “let them off the hook” or criticized their work without offering solutions. It may show me the times I accidentally “incentivized” their behavior by giving in or taking over when they complained.
Am I ultimately responsible for their behavior? No. But I will play a role in what happens next, so I may as well look carefully at how we got here.
Step two is about unraveling the pattern as it currently exists. You might ask yourself, “What do I do when this pattern presents itself?” “What action (or inaction) do I take?”
Applied to the case of my manager using a harsh tone of voice with me, I may find that I don’t speak up about it. I may find that I shut down emotionally when the situation arises, or that I even match my manager’s tone with a disrespectful tone of my own.
I may find that I have beliefs about the power that contribute to my choices. Taking a closer look at the pattern itself can illuminate the choices that you are actively making because these are sometimes “unconscious.” We feel that we “have no choice,” or that we “have to” respond as we do. Hopefully, this step will show you subtle ways that you can shift your actions or beliefs, and that is the first step toward shifting the pattern.
Finally, remember to look forward. Ask yourself, “How can I create the best outcome?” Or, “what do I really want from this situation?” These questions show us that there are many possible pathways to take and that we play a vital role in deciding what to do next.
In the case of my direct report not completing a task, instead of focusing on the frustration of a “delegation gone bad,” I turn my attention to how to improve our process or support her learning or task prioritization more thoroughly. I look more deeply at her needs and at the outcome I am seeking, and I re-approach the delegation with a broader mindset and a positive attitude.
Once you have done this kind of introspection, you will likely have a more generous attitude toward the situation that caused your frustration. As you start to uncover the choices that you can make, you feel less like a victim and more mastery over your life.
If not, ask yourself, “What do I have to gain if I do something positive?” (The sub-question is, “what do I have to gain by doing nothing, or by continuing to allow this pattern to exist unchecked?”) In most cases, deconstructing the situation in this manner will help you refocus on the things that you can control, and therefore will help you increase your personal power.
Don’t expect that just because you do this analysis and try something different, that everything will magically improve. Change takes time, and patterns have a way of holding themselves in place. But, communication is a dynamic that exists between people, and if you change your part, then the system must change.
In what situation will you take radical ownership?