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What Prevents People From Taking Ownership?

If you are fortunate to be a parent, or perhaps an auntie or uncle that has been around kids, you likely have had the experience where the proverbial vase got broken. As you looked into the sweet faces of two or more children their eyes beamed with innocence as they nervously pointed at the kid next to them boldly proclaiming , “he did it.”

How many times has this scenario played out in your adult life too? You are at work and a team is delayed in finishing their project or getting the report in on time. How many times have you seen finger pointing and blame occurring amongst team members? Once in awhile? Weekly? Daily?

This “he did it” scenario plays out in both our personal as well as our professional lives. Why do we have such a hard time saying,” it was me. I blew it. We’re delayed and it’s on me.”

Showing up and pointing fingers is a dynamic that sadly plays out at home and in the workplace and in either context causes unnecessary stress leaving others to both do detective work to find out what really happened as well as expending energy and time considering how to remedy the situation.

So what keeps us (children and adults) from just coming clean? Being forthright and owning our shortcomings, failures, or setbacks? And what would real ownership look and sound like?

Let’s address WHY many people are unable to show up owning their missteps, mistakes, errors, and omissions.

- They Fear the Consequences and Wrath that Owning Up May Bring. If I am fearing the fallout of my truth telling, and especially if I perceive the consequences from my boss, partner, spouse or friend may be more than I can stomach, then I am likely not going to be willing to show up with accountability and ownership of what I did or failed to do.

- The Environment does not Feel Psychologically Safe- While this is similar to the above reason, it is also a stand alone issue. If Leaders, and by leaders, I mean parents, partners, bosses, managers etc. have not intentionally created a psychologically safe environment, then it is much more likely that not only will people generally be unwilling to show up with the truth, they will also go to great lengths to hide it.

- They Have Endured a Lifetime of Criticism. People that have grown up with a harsh or critical parent for example will likely be more sensitive to the perceived condemnation that often accompanies not getting something done, or failing to do it well, or on time.

Therefore, condemnation, harsh words or critical comments are going to be a trigger for them that they will likely avoid.

How do we help people take ownership? How do we make it safe for them to do so? Again, this applies to both homelife as well as in the workplace. If a child repeatedly does not do their homework, or clean their room when asked, how do mom or dad handle that? Are they met with yelling? Criticism? Harsh words? If we want ownership, we all play a role that either makes the environment more safe, or more unsafe. Here’s some ideas for you to begin to look at the role you play and how you can begin to turn your family life and work life into a psychologically safer place.

Ask Yourself, “Is it Safe to Fail here? Are mistakes, errors, accidents and the like accepted as normal “part of life happenings” or, are they treated with disdain, condemnation, judgement, meanness, shortness, irritability, impatience or otherwise attacking or unkind responses?

How do You Show Up Consistently? What attitude and mindset do you generally show up with on a daily basis at home and at work? Do you expect your kids are going to wreak havoc and you treat them as though they are your enemy? Are you white knuckling it to just get through a day? At work do you expect to be stressed out all the time and you anticipate that people are going to frustrate you? Do you make it difficult for someone to share that they are having a hard time or are falling behind?

People often only begin to take ownership when the following exists:

1. They feel emotionally connected and psychologically safe. It takes vulnerability to tell someone else that we are behind, late, didn’t do the work, broke the vase, or are suffering emotionally or mentally. The safer you make the environment, the more likely you will get the truth. Making it safe, means being present, listening without judgement, and responding truthfully but without judgement. It is ok to say we feel disappointed in someone’s choices, without trashing them as a fellow human being. Showing up kind and caring causes people to want to do better and makes them feel safe to explore how they can operate differently to produce a different outcome.

2. Model the behavior you would like to see. When you as a parent, leader, teacher, boss, or manager begin to consistently model what it looks like to show up candidly bringing all your strengths and weaknesses, then it gives people permission to become more fully human. Mistakes or failures become learning and growing opportunities that become a mutual journey with the leader ensuring that the person is clear on what is appropriately their responsibilities.

3. Shift the Culture. Taking ownership has a language of its own. When clear expectations have been stated, when people know not only what is expected, but they also get to experience real life consequences- and still be accepted and treated with respect and care, that is how you begin to shift culture. People who work and live in a culture (or family dynamic) where mistakes are seen as normal part of growing up will then adopt a mindset that there is nothing to hide, and anything and everything is safe to talk about. That is how we support one another, bring accountability as a part of what we do, and feel safe to be vulnerable.

Only when people feel like there won’t be critical judgement and condemnation are they more likely to come forth with the truth of the matter, whether it be a broken vase, heart, promise, or other mistake or failure. We can hold people accountable without dragging them through the mud. Only in that environment can people thrive.


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