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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