Not My Fault, Is My Problem

By Steve McKee

From figure skaters and ice cream makers to propellers in the ocean and planets in motion, things turn. Beyond physical things, however, life turns in innumerable ways.

Turns are simply the way of things in science, in war, in economics, in culture, in sports, in health, in families and yes, in business. From the atomic to the astronomic, by itself or as part of a larger ecosystem, one way or another, everything turns. It therefore follows that every turn requires a thing.

That sounds obvious, but in it lies the key to better navigating the choices with which we’re continually faced: the ability to mentally separate the turn itself from that which is turning — especially when the latter is us. Otherwise, we risk letting our emotions lead the way.

I discovered this the hard way when, after five years of rapid growth following its launch, my firm inexplicably stalled. There had been no bolt of lightning, no aggressive new competitor, no recession on which to pin the blame. But our revenues were flat and beginning to decline, and nothing I did to try and correct the situation seemed to have any impact.

To add embarrassment to injury, we had just made the Inc. 500 list of the fastest-growing private companies in America. I attended the awards conference with my tail between my legs; here I was, sitting in roundtable discussions with CEOs of companies that were dealing with the need to hire dozens of people, finance their expansions and mature their operations, and I could do little more than stare at my shoes. The last thing I wanted was to participate in the conversation, as I would have either had to misrepresent the truth or confess that I was an imposter.

It was that imposter syndrome that delayed our recovery. I suppose I had given myself too much credit on the way up, thinking I was more responsible for our success than I had been. I only later learned that I blamed myself too much on the way down.

Not knowing what else to do, several months into the stall we leveraged our status as an Inc. 500 member to survey other companies that had made the list over the preceding twenty years. We discovered that nearly one in five had run into rough waters similar to ours. It was only then I realized that perhaps our struggles were due less to inept management than to normal growing pains.

Once I was able to separate the object of the downturn, my company, from my performance as its leader, I could dispassionately evaluate what to do about it. It only cost me a year before I figured that out.

It can be difficult to separate subject (us) from object (our organizations) when we come to turns. Think about it: a change in direction, by definition, represents something new; new things are unfamiliar, unfamiliar things are risky and risky things are frightening.

In the midst of a turn, just when we need to be levelheaded in our evaluation of what’s happening, our emotions can gum up the works, often without our realizing it. That can lead to some bad decision making, not to mention an ulcer.

Partly as a result of this experience, I created a pithy mantra that relieved me from worrying so much about unfortunate turns in my professional life: “Not my fault, is my problem.” In my line of work (likely yours as well) things go wrong every day; one way of understanding my role is that it’s my job to fix them. But being responsible for fixing problems is very different from having caused them, which in most cases is not a charge that can be laid at my feet; I’m pretty good at my job.

As a conscientious person, however, bearing the emotional weight of the problem is an involuntary and subconscious burden. The better I have been able to separate the object (me) from the turn (the problem), the better able I am to think clearly about solutions. And sleep more soundly.

Our ability to disassociate objects from turns increases the likelihood that we will make our decisions based on the true nature of things rather than on subjective emotions. Cultivating the ability to distinguish the two is good practice.

Originally published on SmartBrief on Leadership

Steve McKee

Co-founder and author, Steve specializes in addressing the most meaningful problems. Call Steve when you want to change the world. He’ll have a thought (and some research) on that.

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