Sometimes a simple change in perspective is all it takes to empower ourselves.
Today’s post is by Kristen Cox, author of Stop Decorating The Fish: Which Solutions to Ignore and Which Problems Really Matter (CLICK HERE to get your copy).
“I want to change the world” is a common declaration among passionate professionals. Early in my career, this desire also drove me. But as enticing as this statement is, it actually assumes that success—and failure—is contingent upon changing others. Although trying to change others may seem like a “power move,” when we, as managers, focus on other people rather than ourselves, we relinquish our power to create real change. Extreme responsibility, on the other hand, shifts power back to management—where it belongs.
Let’s use the example of a successful car dealership to demonstrate the principle of extreme responsibility in action. This dealership is a market leader in almost every community where it operates. It focuses on sales volume of new and used cars as its primary measure. This measure then supports other areas, like parts and servicing.
In good times, it is relatively easy to achieve high profitability. But, during economic downturns, it is difficult for the sales team to meet volume targets, as consumers have less money to spend. It doesn’t take long before price discounts sacrifice margins in the name of meeting volume targets. This results in poor financial performance. In response, management starts to scrutinize individual deals, demanding that the salesforce explain the eroding margins. The additional scrutiny is time-intensive for both management and employees, resulting in low morale and accelerated attrition.
After years of this cycle, management takes a different approach. They stop shifting the blame to the salesforce and focus on what they themselves can do.
Instead of saddling the salesforce with the dilemma of volume vs. margin on each car, they make it easier for their employees to know what to do. Management determines which cars can be sold at discount, and which cannot. Then, they place each category of car in a specific area in the lot to make it clear to the salesforce which cars can be discounted, and which cannot. This makes it much easier for the salesforce to succeed during both good and bad economic cycles. By focusing on their role rather than that of the salesforce, management can find a solution.
Extreme responsibility is especially important (but often neglected) in government. By its nature, government exists to manage how people, society, and businesses operate. Passing new laws, for example, is an exercise in changing what people can or cannot do. Many government programs exist to help modify a person’s life, such as helping someone secure employment or successfully transition out of and not return to prison. When outcomes are poor, decision makers often rely on what they know: change the law, policies, or procedures.
This culture makes it easy to ignore how government itself contributes to the very same problems it is trying to fix. Consider government’s response to the pandemic. Many policymakers imposed life-altering mandates and restrictions on individuals, business, and education, but government often overlooked its role in containing the virus. For example, if testing and contact tracing are not accomplished within three days, it becomes difficult to catch secondary spread. When secondary spread isn’t contained, cases grow exponentially. Yet the government often overlooked tracking, reporting on, and improving this key function. A similar dynamic exists as some state and local governments have struggled to set up sufficient infrastructure to quickly deliver vaccinations to the public.
Consider an inmate transitioning back into society. Policymakers often rely on the latest evidence-based treatment to help “change” the individual. While this is an important tactic, it is useless if it takes 90 days to create a support system for the inmate. It is also useless if front-line parole officers are jumping from case to case with no capacity because they are saddled with paperwork, poor processes, and a continual introduction of change from management. These are all operational issues that are invisible to management. Rather than improving what they do have stewardship over, management’s focus can easily shift to evaluating inmate outcomes after the fact while overlooking the system design flaws that contributed to poor outcomes. Extreme responsibility insists that government change by the same order of magnitude it imposes on those it serves.
I personally learned the impact of extreme responsibility as I was going blind. One day I was complaining to my mentor, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, about the unfair treatment I had received that day because of my blindness. I was appalled by the negative stereotypes about blindness the person I encountered had. Dr. Jernigan kindly told me that I could not expect the sighted to change their negative stereotypes about blindness if I had not done the hard work of changing them myself. This struck me to the core as he uncovered the persistent insecurities I still held about my blindness. Not long after, I enrolled in a rigorous residential program where I learned to upgrade my Braille, cane travel, adaptive technology, and other critical skills needed to succeed as a blind person. By the end of the five-month program, I had earned the knowledge that blindness need not limit me.
We cannot change other people. The best we can do, at least externally, is to create the right conditions, products, or services that allow for change. What we can change is ourselves—our skill sets, our work ethic, our listening skills, our products, and how well we problem-solve. We must begin changing the resources we are responsible for. This doesn’t mean that external changes aren’t necessary. But we are more likely to expand our positive influence for change once we’ve done the hard work of changing ourselves.
When we believe that others hinder our ability to do our work, we fall into one of the seven traps my co-author and I identified in our two books: we start to believe that the situation calls for more blame and accountability. This is an illusion. We must begin by looking in the mirror and assuming a new level of responsibility for what we can control.
Kristen Cox is the author of Stop Decorating The Fish: Which Solutions to Ignore and Which Problems Really Matter. For more information visit www.StopDecoratingTheFish.com
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