Full Truth about Responsibility or It’s Always Up to You

The management's key competence is responsibility for everything going on in a company – sounds bombastic and superfluous, but requires a very thoughtful approach. At one of your lectures devoted to management you mentioned the quality which is quite common even among top managers but actually incompatible with responsibility. This is the propensity to justify one’s action or inaction, the attempt to explain away all kind of inefficient and incompetent moves. Whenever the manager looks for (and finds) someone to blame, this can make him or her feel comfortable: you are still good enough, you saved your blushes. Even if you barked up a wrong tree you are still at the steering wheel! The weight of responsibility is not too heavy in this case, since responsibility has been shifted. But… who does this manager deceive if not himself? Please share your theory of the search for justification and its impact upon the corporate health.   

Looking for justification or excuses is a characteristic human reflex; we are not talking about a shortfall peculiar to managers alone. This is a sequel to the story of self-preservation instinct, if you please, a la “nothing human is alien to me.” But while some find the inner strength to withstand this urge, others, on the contrary, remain in their zone of comfort which they would never abandon. For the manager this topic takes on special significance by virtue of the fact that this “general human weakness” is unallowable for the company’s boss who is in charge of business, clients, team and the future of families of the managers working with him.
But let’s start from the very beginning. An incredible amount of information is stored in the depth of our memory: stories,

In reality we hold fast onto familiar experiences, statuses and roles, being captives of our own prejudiced opinions about ourselves. The ability to move away from set patterns, getting rid of old roles played many times, is the most important skill propelling him, on the one hand, to new professional highs and, on the other hand, leading the team and showing by one’s own example an incredible number of opportunities available for each one.

The brain research revealed that, contrary to the once prevalent prejudices about the memory, it does not function like a hard disk drive. This is not a bottomless repository where all our memories, emotions and knowledge are stored, waiting for their hour. The human memory is not passive – it is “live” and everything stored in its depths calls for control. A huge amount of information in our memory requires our constant attention, involvement and our energy, which means it’s up to us to choose what we’d rather remember and what should better be forgotten, what recollections are worth taking off the shelf and which ones must forever be buried in oblivion.  
Following this logic, we can presume that even negative recollections and most painful episodes from our past life do not live in our memory by themselves. Do we choose them?

Absolutely! And we made this deliberate choice because there were weighty reasons why we did that. For instance, we can attribute some of our today’s failures to negative experiences of the past, coming up with some explanation of the disarray crippling our life. The “live” memory theory is revolutionary in that we are responsible for the recollections we choose to retain and which eventually influence our lives. If this is so indeed, then it’s within our power to retune our memory so as to erase such reminiscences as childhood’s grievances, bitter disappointments and prejudices regarding ourselves, the latter making our life simpler and more comfortable. For what can be more meaningless or ineffective than shutting ourselves off from the present moment with past events, or applying old templates to today’s context…? 

Management abounds in examples, when “bad memoirs” block the steward’s potential and generally do more harm than good to companies. For instance, each of us is familiar with the sense of ungrounded antagonism and unconscious resentment, when one neutral word, intonation or action of our contractual partner may cause irritation, frustration or anger deep inside our minds. It’s quite possible that in the past the same word uttered during an important conversation entailed some unpleasant consequences. It’s quite likely that the intonation we sensed in the statement of our counterparty unintentionally reminded us of the condescending attitude of the father who demonstrated his superiority in this way, whereas we wanted to see a friend in him. Whatever the case, the negative emotion grips us, making us its hostage unable to continue a discussion calmly. It may be that during some time we’ll even be unable to see the person who stirred up an emotional storm in us, unawares. In reality it’s not this person’s fault; this is more about our background, our painful memories, our liability.

It appears that any seemingly unfounded resentment actually has a solid ground in our negative past experience, in our bitter memoirs which poison our life because we cannot dismiss them.

True, but it has a flipside which makes us hold to it so fast. It’s sometimes convenient to hide behind this background, using it as an excuse, despite the tremendous damage caused by this “bad memory”. And it is within our power to shed it, or choose to ignore it. Why carrying this weight which presses us down, hampering our progress?

It’s our duty, as managers, to steer various conflicts. But unless we settle this inner conflict, we’ll keep projecting it unto those around, trying again and again to discern in their conduct, phrases and gestures another justification of our grievances, fears and complexes. Rid your business, colleagues and subordinates of your emotional past. Stop clogging communication channels!     

Easier said than done… How can we stifle that “bad memory”? How to stop choosing negative recollections from the past and using them as a means to justify our present? 

This is indeed a very profound subject worth discussing in a special book. For me knowledge is already a part of the therapy. Everything happening to us is the result of our actions, not our doom, fate or punishment. The same pertains to our emotions. We choose what we feel, which means that in order to be happy and successful, we should better forget about the deficit of love in our childhood, our romantic heartbreak, etc. Choose a better lot, be good to yourself! Stop feeling sorry for yourself or looking for excuses, that’s the bottom line. The “price method” works fine for me personally as I count the cost: what do I forfeit if I stay put, giving rein to my emotions? This is much stronger motivation for me.

The ability of holding in check one’s response to what goes on and choosing how to react seems to be an important skill of any top manager, not only in the context of addressing one’s inner conflicts… It’s obvious that “outer” conflicts are unavoidable in the work of any executive: tensions with colleagues, disputable situations, discontent with subordinates, etc. How to avoid becoming a hostage to one’s emotions, and therefore assume responsibility for one’s actions? How to learn choosing your own response to what’s going around, and managing it?

Any automatically negative reaction benumbs the one who expresses it. This person stops soberly assessing the situation, pigeonholing and creating a heap of prejudices. The manager’s skill is in not letting anger or resentment entrap him. It is within the manager’s competence to know how to get rid of negative attitudes towards those who “do something wrong.” The manager’s basic assumption must be very simple: “All people make mistakes, both intentional and unintentional. But I choose the position of sound response, trying to grapple with the situation, sticking to the presumption of innocence principle and granting this person a chance to vindicate himself or herself in a safe environment. Sometimes it is important indeed to let it go instead of looking for the guilty. Even if a person screwed it up, perhaps at that particular moment this person was justifiably motivated to act like that. This certainly did not happen because he or she wanted to be in your eye, get the better of you or turn the tables. Do not think you are the hub of the world.

When I am talking about the ability to get rid of negative emotions, I do not mean suppressing them. In the art of management emotions are not some rubbish, but energy which must be properly directed. If you choke your emotional background you block one of the most important communication channels and do not bring your entire self into the situation. It’s important to tame blind fury, properly directing this emotional flow along the constructive channel – for instance, in the talks with subordinates… Or just take a breather and count to a hundred, since you have to take some situations as a given and move one. There is a rather popular illustration: a child who learns walking hits his head against the table, falls down and bursts into tears. Parents in their urge to calm down the darling offer a seemingly innocent trick: “give a good lesson to the table and strike it back”. Eventually this child grows up in full confidence that there is always someone or something that “stands in his way”, “disables” him, “hurts” him, while the salt of the matter is that there is none to blame but oneself. So what’s needed is just taking the episode for granted and moving on without fixating on that episode.

If we lay it down as an axiom that we are responsible for our emotions, reactions and words because they are our own choice, it means we also choose an outcome of any situation with our involvement. We are the ones who make decisions, take control, choose our fate. Sounds simple but rather revolutionary! We create chaos ourselves and we are free to get rid of it anytime!

It’s important for each top manager to realize that the outcome of any meeting he holds with his subordinates depends on himself more than by 50%. That is, he is responsible for the final result; yet quite often the management shifts their responsibility to employees. “The meeting has brought no results”, “I’m fed up with this waste of time”, “the decisions made do not stand up to scrutiny” – the top manager shooting these arrows at his subordinates looks helpless and pathetic. Who if not him is responsible for the final result, for the emotional atmosphere in the team, etc.? To bend others, you should first bend yourself or at least assume responsibility for what happened… This is a logical sequel to the topic of inner conflict: unless a person is capable of assuming responsibility for his own life, giving it up to various past circumstances and looking for excuses, most likely he will also be finger-pointing in external conflicts, looking for those who could be reprimanded for his own failures… 

It seems easy in word, but in fact it’s not that easy to find inner strength for being the principal decision-maker of one’s own life… The urge is strong to share this burden of responsibility with like-minded people…

Nothing special is needed for anyone to consider himself the main decision-maker of his life. You need just to know the tricks of your memory and possibly ignore them. People thinking that they are losers always keep in their minds numerous stories of sad injustice from their lives, which can easily explain why they are losers. Successful people, on the contrary, stack solely stories of success in their memory where they shined, excelled and showed no weakness or insecurity. But in both cases this is the role that has clung to a person, the prejudice in which this person is bogged down so deep that it’s hard for him to get out. The loser suffers from his misfortune while the winner deplores his own perfectionism and standout complex. Forget about statuses and roles. Just live, as if you indeed had a wide range of emotions and experiences in your cabinet of plenty and it’s a daunting challenge for you to pick something most typical of your personality.

The self-preservation instinct teaches us to fear. As long as we have fear, we are relatively safe. In this context the desire to peek out from behind one’s own role is actual caring for security. This is not relevant nowadays while in the past that was a matter of life and death: the landowner could not suddenly become a nomad without putting his own life and the life of his loved ones at stake. Today sticking to one’s role and status-quo has become a throwback to a certain extent. Or another example: humans have always needed glucose, but in the times of old getting it was not easy and so people had to put much effort in hunting for it. The modern man still looks for glucose. Entering a confectionery, he picks candies, chocolate and other “joys of life” indiscriminately without giving much thought to the fact that the environment and the context have changed. If our historic memory urges us to make a store of glucose, modernity warns us against this move, demonstrating the deplorable statistics of rampant diabetes. Today we need to counter our own nature, our memories – in fact standing up against our past ego!
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