Personal Responsibility: A Path for All Seasons

pride acronym concept , words on cut paper on wood

The concept of Personal Responsibility, sometimes referred to as personal accountability, is a topic of growing attention in both business and personal life coaching.  Simply put, Personal Responsibility is realizing that you get to choose your response, whether that be a course of action, or an emotional reaction, to whatever happens to you, or whatever is happening around you.   It is a realization that you are personally accountable for your actions in life  – for your successes and for your mistakes.

Furthermore, you are responsible for how you react to the environment around you, whether it be pleasant or intolerable.  Victor Frankl, in the book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, documents his experiences in the German concentration camps.  He makes a strong case for why he survived while others did not, despite the same conditions and treatment.  Regardless of what his captors did to him, he retained the ability to choose and determine his reaction to his treatment.  He was able to will himself to meaning, to rise above the unimaginable and assume responsibility for his emotional and physical reactions to this torture.  And he survived to write about it.    

When unpleasant or complicated things happen in our lives, blaming others or assuming the “victim” position is an all-to-common reaction.  “It is her fault that I am angry – listen to what she did to me.”  “I would not have struggled if this person had treated me better”.  “I would get better tips if the cook would prepare better meals”.  “If my boss had given me more training, I would have received the promotion that my peer was given”.  All ‘victim’ statements – all statements that put the responsibility clearly out there, onto someone else, and away from the self.   Notice the tone of these statements – all are negative and defensive .  All strip away the opportunity for the individual to do something about the situation.  Because of the assumed helplessness that they imply, victim statements lead to increased personal stress for those who practice them.

Personal Responsibility principles teach us to adopt a different frame of mind.  One of the toughest lessons is to learn to ask different questions than “Why me?”.   Different questions like:  “What can I do about this situation that will make a difference?”;   “What choices do I have in how I react to this situation ?”;   “Will I allow this person or situation to dictate and control my emotional response ?”; “What can I do now that will make this situation better ?”.

Personal Responsibility questions such as these allow us to make better choices because we have changed the question – from a ‘victim” question to an empowering one.  This second order of question allows us to consider difference courses of action – rather than give away our responsibility for action and adopt an “assumed helplessness” position.  If you look closely at these improved questions, you also get a strong hint at the answer.  The answers are almost always in the personal responsibility questions.

Let’s take a workplace example.  After receiving our order for a fresh fruit salad, I call the waitress over to comment on the wilted and shriveled look of the plate.  With a statement of apology, she offers to get us a different plate with fresh fruit.  Rather than making a ‘victim’ and defensive statement like: “new cook – I only serve the food”, she apologizes and asks herself   “What can I do to make this situation better” – and goes about making sure that we are satisfied.  She accepts the bigger responsibility that she has – to make sure that I am a happy enough customer to come back to this business again.

Personal Responsibility questions begin with “what” or “how” instead of “why”, when” or “who”.  Personal Responsibility questions always include the pronoun “I”.  So new questions start looking like: “What solution can I provide?”; “What can I do to find the information to make a decision?”; How can I react in a constructive manner to change this situation or reduce its effect on me”?;   “What can I do to better position myself for a promotion to that job?”;  “How can I become part of the solution?”;  “What can I do to be at my best?”.

In our personal lives there are also many benefits to moving towards Personal Responsibility principles.  Relationships improve when the question moves from: “Why won’t he change” to “What can I do to make this relationship better now?”.  The world gets a little more civilized when we make decisions and assume control over our own emotional reactions, rather than give control away to others that “make” us angry or feel hurt.  The world seems a little more just and right when, as recently seen in Ontario, an adult son of a very rich family pleads guilty to impaired driving causing the deaths of 4 people and, without a lengthy trial, steps up to accept complete responsibility and accountability for the impact of his actions.

With a little focused effort at asking ourselves different questions, we can begin change our inner dialogue and move towards a better place.  This is the path towards Personal Responsibility and accountability.  This is the path towards greater success and satisfaction both at work and in life.  This is the path towards a more reasonable and sane society. This is the path for all seasons.