Breakdowns happen. There will be days people won’t give you what you need to complete projects. Things will break. And you will look bad. When breakdowns happen, I always ask myself, “What could I have done to prevent this situation?” or “What did I do to help create this situation?” I see myself as accountable for whatever breakdowns occur.
It may sound odd that I always look at myself when breakdowns occur, even when it’s someone else who didn’t do their job, but it’s just easier. I can’t control anyone else. But I can control me (admittedly, some days I do a better job at this than others). When I can identify something I could have done to make a situation go differently, I feel more in control – aka better.
It’s like getting off a highway versus sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. The alternate route may take longer, but at least I’m moving. I feel like I’m doing something and thus have more control. Taking responsibility for everything that happens to you is similar. When you’re accountable, you can do something to improve your situation. When someone else is accountable, you’re at the mercy of other people and have very little control.
There are, of course, exceptions to the practice that “we’re always accountable.” Terrible acts of violence, crime, and illness happen to people, about which they have no control. But in general, in our day-to-day lives, there is typically something we did to contribute to a bad situation or something we can do to improve it.
Here are five practices for improving difficult situations, even when you didn’t create the mess (alone).
1) Ask more questions. If you’re not clear about what someone is expecting from you, ask. You’re responsible for doing good work, regardless of the type of direction you receive.
2) Tell people what you think they’re expecting and how you’re planning to approach a project or task, to ensure everyone’s expectations are aligned. Clarifying expectations beats doing several weeks worth of work, only to discover what you created isn’t what someone else had it mind.
3) Ask for specific feedback as projects progress. Don’t wait until the end of a project to find out how you performed.
4) Say “thank you” to whatever feedback you receive versus defending yourself. People will be pleasantly surprised and their upset will dissipate more quickly. That could sound like, “That’s good feedback. I’m sorry that happened. Thank you for telling me.”
5) Admit when you make a mistake or when you wish you had done something differently. Don’t wait for someone to tell you. Saying, “I’m sorry. How can I make this right with you?” goes a long way.
I consistently ask the following questions:
“What could I have done differently?”
“What did I do to contribute to this situation?”
“What can I do now to make this situation better?”
I encourage you to ask these questions, even when someone else drops the ball. You can’t control others, but you can control you. And your happiness and success is your responsibility.