A friend and colleague once articulated to me her three biggest considerations in deciding whether or not someone should be terminated.
• First, did the person receive adequate feedback?
• Second, did the person truly own the feedback and take responsibility for the problem?
• Third, did behavior change actually occur?
In effect, my friend said, if the person did not receive adequate feedback in the first place, that’s an obvious starting point. Don’t terminate someone if he or she never really got meaningful data about the problem. However, if the person did get that feedback, then the next question is one of taking responsibility. If the person truly took that responsibility but still no change occurred, something else may well be going on. Is the person genuinely able to meet the challenge? Does he or she have the needed skills? Are there other factors involved, such as a bad work system or other constraints that are not in the person’s control? Finally, if a person got the feedback and did not seem to take ownership, but behavior changed anyway, what should happen? This may well still be a problematic situation and something that needs consideration over time. Is the behavior change temporary? Will the problem come back because ownership truly wasn’t there?
I have seen all three of these cases in my coaching work with executives and managers potentially facing termination — and a multitude of variations on these themes.
By far, however, it is the second part of the formula — ownership — that is the most sensitive and challenging aspect of the coaching work, especially coaching work that involves the client’s lack of key reflection, self-confrontation and interpersonal skills. In those situations especially, blaming others, passivity and passive-aggression, and seeing oneself as a victim are all common and obvious evidence of lack of fundamental ownership. “He never really tells me what he wants me to do differently.” “She already has her mind made up that I should go.” “They never clarified my authority.” “It’s just the way I am.” “They never listen to me.” And about a hundred other excuses. What’s eminently clear is that nothing is very likely to change, and now there are actually two issues: the original problem and the lack of responsibility for that problem.
On the surface, in the real world of power politics and career protection, denial of ownership can seem like skillful, “smart” public relations. Much could be said about why this is so, psychologically. Our identities seem to depend so thoroughly on discounting inconvenient truths that might contradict what we want to believe about ourselves and project to others. Indeed, very smart people in very privileged positions can model exactly how easy it is to make others the culprit for their own failings, a significant issue of leadership in general these days.
Sometimes it is so obvious to me that a client is trying to avoid ownership that I feel I’m banging my head against a wall. I find myself trying to make the point that it doesn’t matter if the problems were in small part also caused by other people or by circumstance. So what? And fake or half-hearted apologies and check lists of fake, half-hearted actions — because the client still doesn’t actually own the problem — won’t help either. The only thing that will move the situation forward is taking 100% of the responsibility, not worrying about unfairness, and doing everything you can to shift your own behavior positively. These are practical considerations, even if in some ideal, analytically defined world of perfect truth, you are not entirely to blame. Sadly and inevitably, when a person’s self-protection urges are stronger than owning even obvious problems, the individual is fired.
What’s the alternative? Well, one answer is seeing the whole thing as a life learning opportunity, and connecting that opportunity to the gorgeous, loving spark of life that you were born into as a person. Do you burn to realize that spark fully, to know who you are, really? If so, well then own it. Own yourself, your talents and mistakes, your whole being. Stop making your mistakes the responsibility of other people. Care for yourself, and love yourself enough to step up to the plate and take your best shot at doing the vulnerable right thing, particularly in the wake of uncomfortable feedback. Don’t waste another moment living out your excuses, some of which have half-lives that might, metaphorically, last generations.
If you do step up, you won’t have to live with a divided self, fighting forever within about why this or that bad thing keeps on happening to you — and how it’s not ever your fault. Such rationalizations are a form of self-perpetuated hell. In the end, owning the mistakes, loving and forgiving yourself for them, embracing them and yourself for who you are, is the only real way out.
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