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How to Become More Powerful When Things Go Wrong

What if you could develop the ability to instantly shift your thinking and behavior from a sense of victimhood and blame, to embody your most powerful state of being?

While that likely sounds like a great skill to develop, here's a bigger question. Is this, in fact, possible? We believe the answer is, yes. But it's not necessarily easy.

If you’re like us, developing this ability requires ongoing practice. Most of us tend to do well with implementing this approach for a while, but then fall back into playing the Blame Game when things become challenging.

Because we've found that for us personally, leveraging the power of responsibility is always a work in progress, we developed something we share in our book Thriving in Business and Life called the Power Scale™. The idea behind the scale is to allow us to take a quick look at our actions and see whether we are exhibiting behaviors that are on the Disempowered (Blame) side or the Empowered (Ownership) side of the continuum (see below).


Disempowered (Surviving) Empowered (Thriving)

Blame Take Ownership

Excuses Lessons Learned

Reactive Proactive

Bias Cycles Prevail Seek Inclusive Views

Problem-Centric Solution-Centric

Pessimistic Healthy Optimism

Constricted Views Expanded Awareness

Point out What’s Wrong Catch People Doing it Right

Unhealthy Competition Healthy Collaboration

Win/Lose Win/Win/Win

As you can see from this scale, the opposite of blame is assuming responsibility. Instead of dividing up responsibility into how responsible each person is in a given activity, project, or situation, we can all decide to assume 100% for our own unique role and how we’ve contributed to the outcome—succeed or fail.

Instead of making excuses, we can learn lessons. This is what great leaders do and it’s one powerful reason they continue to improve. That said, it’s not easy to own something that’s gone poorly. If fact, it’s often painful. That’s why it helps to have people around us who encourage us to take ownership, especially when we’re feeling like taking a deep dive into victimhood or blame.

Here’s another survival principle: being reactive.

The alternative? Being proactive. If we’re tired of putting out fires, we can begin to develop proactive, preventative strategies, rather than waiting until something is broken and fixing it under emergency conditions. We can anticipate problems in advance by paying attention to the warning signs and acting early. The challenge here, of course, is that most of us get into repetitive cycles that are embedded in the neural pathways we’ve created over the course of our life. Changing these cycles is, again, something that most of us simply can’t do on our own. That’s why peer support is so important.

Catching each other doing it right and pulling each other aside when we backslide to provide perspective is essential if we’re to generate more sustained progress to the empowered side of the Power Scale.

The biases we hold about others can also lead to a downward slide to the disempowered end of the scale. Because bias cycles tend to lead to self-fulfilling prophecies, it’s easy to understand how our very perspective sets ourselves or others up to fail in our eyes. What do we do when we catch a glimpse of a bias cycle in action? We can let things continue as they are or we can interrupt the cycle to seek more inclusive views. We can tap into the full genius of our those around us and even invite feedback and innovation from unexpected directions to enable us to have a more informed viewpoint.

And, as to catching people doing it right . . . it’s so easy to point out mistakes but improvement becomes a whole lot easier when we first engage on the basis of something positive. Everyone likes to be appreciated and emphasizing what’s working leads to healthy collaboration, rather than unhealthy competition, the customary win/lose dynamic that prevails in so many organizations.

The concept of the Win/Win/Win game is based on the assumption that there actually is no “them;” there’s only “us.” We’re all in this together. This attitude shifts us into a thriving mindset, where we can ask this question: “What solution or idea could be good for us, good for our clients, good for our community, good for our industry and good for the world?”

Remarkable things begin to happen when we assume full personal responsibility for ourselves, especially in the midst of difficult situations. This is an inspiring leadership quality and one powerful way to build effective teams.

There's no question that truly accepting more responsibility can be a challenge that requires ongoing practice. We all fall down sometimes, and in some areas of our lives more than others. Knowing this, here’s your Thriving challenge for the week:

Pick some situation in your life where you have assumed that others were more responsible than you. Decide to be 100% responsible (without relieving others of their responsibility) for your role and how you impact the outcome. Pair up with someone who can help you hold yourself accountable in a productive way.

Notice what happens with your level of engagement and enjoyment

and how your example inspires those around you.

Will Wilkinson and Christopher Harding

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