The Problem is Owning the Problem

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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  • I would like to chal­lenge the notion regard­ing some­one’s resis­tance to feed­back. When you work in an envi­ron­ment (tox­ic, cor­rupt) that does not address ALL behav­iors vio­lat­ing the guid­ing prin­ci­ples of an orga­ni­za­tion, it makes you ques­tion the intent of the feed­back of the super­vi­sor. I don’t mind grow­ing, but should­n’t every­one else on the team be held to the same stan­dards? I had a col­league who failed to pay employ­ees for 6 months, but gets pro­mot­ed; anoth­er col­league told the truth and was demot­ed. It helps to under­stand the cul­ture of the orga­ni­za­tion & the peo­ple giv­ing feed­back, because I’ve learned all feed­back isn’t con­struc­tive and some envi­ron­ments did­n’t deserve whole, enlight­ened beings to mis­use. Some of us real­ly want to grow, but not all ground is good ground.

  • Dear Traci~

    Thank you for com­ment­ing, and yes, absolute­ly, not all feed­back is accu­rate, and “not all ground is good ground.” I could­n’t agree more, frankly. My post, how­ev­er, is direct­ed toward sit­u­a­tions where the feed­back is good, mean­ing that it is fair and accu­rate (“ade­quate”), and maybe even has been com­mu­ni­cat­ed mul­ti­ple times. The post is also direct­ed toward peo­ple in lead­er­ship roles, such as man­agers and exec­u­tives, whose actions have the poten­tial to direct­ly affect, if not actu­al­ly harm many people. 

    Look­ing over your com­ment, I would ask, who is guid­ing the work­place you are describ­ing? And if those lead­ers were giv­en the feed­back that you are offer­ing here, could they hear it, could they own any part of it, or would we find only a series of denials, dis­missals, and ratio­nal­iza­tions? I’m sure you see the prob­lem: if they don’t own it, noth­ing is going to change.

    This is not at all an easy, one-size fits all top­ic. My point is lim­it­ed but I think it is cru­cial. Own­er­ship is a nec­es­sary pre­con­di­tion of learn­ing, growth and change.

    Thanks again for stop­ping by, and I hope you will do so again!

    All the best

  • Some­times you read things at just the right time and this is one of them for me. I have a client that I’m going to share this with today. They are the vic­tim of some­one that has received the feed­back and is resist­ing own­er­ship. There is no behav­ior change and in fact it’s got­ten worse. My client needs to under­stand that he can­not take respon­si­bil­i­ty for mak­ing that per­son change — all any­one can do is pro­vide open and hon­est feed­back in ser­vice of the indi­vid­ual and the team. If they still choose to explain it away or worse, get angry and even, unfor­tu­nate­ly, there real­ly is only one change left… mov­ing on. 

    Thank you, Dan, for shar­ing your wisdom!

  • This post, and Traci’s com­ment about non-con­struc­tive feed­back, reminds me of the 12-step slo­gan “Take what you like, and leave the rest”. And I would expand “leav­ing”, in this con­text, to include the max­im “change your job or change your job” — per­haps this is sim­ply a vari­ant of the “behav­ior change” not­ed at the start of the post.

    The only time I was ever ter­mi­nat­ed was after receiv­ing entire­ly unan­tic­i­pat­ed non-con­struc­tive feed­back after my first year with an employ­er, after which a “cor­rec­tive action plan” was imposed to change my behav­ior … and my pro­fes­sion­al goals. I judged the goals to be con­trived and utter­ly uncom­pelling, and the pre­scribed behav­ior to be unnat­ur­al and even demean­ing. Even­tu­al­ly a more dras­tic change became inevitable.

    With respect to tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty in own­ing prob­lems, I just read a relat­ed Har­vard Busi­ness Review inter­view with Ellen Lange, Mind­ful­ness in the Age of Com­plex­i­ty, where she talks notes that from a mind­ful­ness per­spec­tive, “When you’re mind­ful, mis­takes become friends.” I own the mis­takes I made dur­ing the tur­bu­lent peri­od I allud­ed to above, and — in part, through your help — ulti­mate­ly gleaned some valu­able insights dur­ing the ensu­ing peri­od of sweet darkness.

  • Dear Alli~

    I’m glad the post res­onat­ed and might be help­ful to your client. When we think we can cause some­one else to change, I think we are indulging in a very prob­lem­at­ic fan­ta­sy. Yes, of course, we need to be able to influ­ence each oth­er, but being influ­enced is always a choice, and there are sit­u­a­tions where, of course, you can­not make that choice for others. 

    I do think it is cru­cial, as part of the feed­back, to direct­ly talk about the chal­lenge of own­er­ship; to let the focus per­son know, for exam­ple, that you do not see their own­er­ship. This can be a high­ly sen­si­tive part of the con­ver­sa­tion, but if han­dled with some diplo­ma­cy and real care for the per­son, can some­times cre­ate the con­di­tions for breakthrough.

    Thanks so much for your kind words!

    All the best

  • Dear Joe~

    I remem­ber our con­ver­sa­tions dur­ing those dark days, and it was heart-break­ing — and com­pli­cat­ed. What I know is that you took a very deep dive in order to deal with the real­i­ty of your sit­u­a­tion, and that for sure you have gained as a result in insight and whole­ness and true hon­or as a person.

    It is so true that the meth­ods used to deal with prob­lems are some­times so very false: the bad plans and worse com­mu­ni­ca­tion that don’t just hap­pen in a moment but have accu­mu­lat­ed over months and years, incre­men­tal­ly. At the time, I felt that you very much were able to self-con­front what­ev­er mis­takes you’d made and owned them in order to acquire new self-knowl­edge. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, not every­one shares in that gift. 

    All the best

  • Own­ing mis­takes is such an impor­tant part of self devel­op­ment in both per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al life. Great post to help peo­ple under­stand the perspective.


  • Dear Lynn~

    Thank you so much for tak­ing a moment to share your thoughts and appreciation! 


  • I appre­ci­ate this post as well as all the com­ments. It’s true that some­times the busi­ness atmos­phere is tox­ic things don’t work out as they should. How­ev­er, that being said, hon­esty is always the best pol­i­cy, and own­ing our prob­lems and deal­ing with them are signs of humil­i­ty and good leadership. 

    See­ing it all as life learn­ing lessons shows matu­ri­ty and teach­able­ness. And learn­ing to for­give our­selves and accept these mis­takes caus­es great per­son­al growth.
    Good post.

  • Dear Robert~

    Thanks for tak­ing a moment to add to the con­ver­sa­tion and offer your per­spec­tives. I agree that “see­ing it all as life learn­ing lessons” does con­tribute to growth and matu­ri­ty. Well said!

    All the best

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