It’s Your Fault, and That’s a Good Thing

Illustration: Justin Cheong.
It’s Your Fault, and That’s a Good Thing
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A long time ago, I worked at a small agency where the project managers weren’t organized enough, sales people promised silly things, developers wrote buggy code, and designers were confused about the differences between print and digital.  It was so frustrating that I became a prickly, judgy, sighing, pain-in-the-butt and eventually decided that no matter how much I liked some people personally, I was burned out and had to get out of there.

Amazingly, I could have avoided most of the negative bits if I’d just realized one simple fact — that it was my fault. They weren’t incompetent, they were failing for reasons that I was contributing to. I didn’t know that it was my fault and worse I didn’t understand why that was good news, because when something is your fault, that means you have the power to prevent it from happening again in the future.  You can’t do anything about the random potshots life takes at you, but the more things in your life that you’re responsible for, the more things you have the power to affect.  When you avoid accountability, you’re basically taking away your agency to create better outcomes. Here are a few suggestions for how to take responsibility the right way.

Don’t worry about blame

Blame gets a bad name, probably because it’s counterproductive and tends to make enemies. At the agency I mentioned I was always trying to figure out who screwed up and that was the problem.  Blame only cares about figuring out who did a bad thing and after a lot of finger-wagging, snotty comments, and eye-rolling it goes and puts its feet up, secure in the knowledge that the guilty have been punished.  It’s best ignored and a great way to do that is to…

Get some perspective

Are you a doctor?  Did you ash onto someone’s appendix because you were smoking during a surgery?  If nobody died and your reputation isn’t ruined then take the hit and don’t sweat it; we’re making websites here people.  If developers are writing buggy code it’s probably not on purpose, so figure out what the problem is, bump up your QA and move on. There’s always going to be panicky hand-wavers running around, but when you own a mistake more sober minds often end up respecting you more.

Ignore what you can’t change

I cringe when I think about how I would blather on about all the things that were stopping us from succeeding. It served no constructive purpose. Was some part of what happened actually beyond our control?  If so, I should have ignored it. Why bother wasting time and energy on some universal curveball that can’t be fixed anyway? If there’s a danger of it repeating, factor that into the risk assessment next time but otherwise move on.

Figure out what YOU contributed to the problem

Since we’re not putting much emphasis on blame and circumstance that frees us up to figure out what we did, because before we start solving a problem we need to understand it.  Was it a strategic error (working toward the wrong thing) or a tactical one (doing the wrong activities)? If sales people aren’t selling reasonable projects is that because you haven’t helped them identify compelling things that they can sell?  Find all the things you had even a little control over.

Learn

Yep, that’s all ya gotta do.  How could you mitigate this in the future?  Can you try a different approach and measure how well it works?  Try treating your failures like a product – discover, plan, act, review, adjust, repeat as needed.  I find that I don’t need to write down what I learn as the sting of failure adequately burns it into my brain, but if you want to make a repository of failures and fixes then go for it.  It might help you to better share what you’ve learned with others and help them avoid similar set-backs.

So what’s in it for you?

This might sound good in theory, but the first time things get real and fingers start looking for a place to point it might sound less good. Because why the heck am I taking the blame again when it was all because Jimmy/Suzy/the cruel whims of fate screwed me over?

Right. Take a breath and remember that there are real and tangible benefits for taking the high road.

Personal development

Taking responsibility helps you stay humble and shows that you’re genuinely interested in continuous learning.  It helps you to be the kind of person that others want to work with. Success can be a better teacher about what you should do to succeed again, but failure can teach you what not to do and how to deal with defeat and frustration, both yours and others.

Organizational culture shift

Be the change you want to see, amiright?  Showing your co-workers and leadership that making mistakes and learning from them isn’t the end of the world is a good thing and can help spread the mindset around.  If your company doesn’t tolerate failure of any kind, you probably don’t want to work there anyway. Jerks.

Empowerment

If you didn’t do anything wrong then you’re just a victim of circumstance and that’s no way to go through life.  Take ownership of your mistakes and you’ll probably get to have less of them in the long run. You’ll also be less whiny and probably get invited to more parties.

Luck doesn’t last

Success without failure is probably luck, and luck doesn’t last.  If you’re not failing once in a while, you’re probably not pushing hard enough.  So push harder, take responsibility for what you can and don’t sweat it when it doesn’t work out — we’ll do better next time.

Why I got burnt out

By focusing on what I thought was everyone else’s failure I missed my contribution and my opportunity to help.  If project managers seem disorganized maybe it’s because they’re not being given enough information, or being asked to do too many things.  Of course there are incompetent people but does that really matter? When you take ownership of other people’s failures you start to look for ways to help them and your whole team  succeed. That attitude leads away from burn-out and towards happy co-workers and a healthy outlook Trust me, I know from experience.

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