Are you taking responsibility for your actions?

For a lot of people, things happen to them. They feel that most things are beyond their control. They refuse to acknowledge responsibility for their lives and blame other people for their problems. On the other hand, there are some people who make things happen. They believe they can determine their future. A simple concept called Locus of Control nicely brings out this difference.

Let’s say Rajesh has an exam and starts from his house in the morning in his two-wheeler. He is a bit tense about the exam and is therefore absent-minded while riding. He jumps a red light and gets stopped and ticketed by a policeman. His exam does not go too well as he is mentally disturbed. Moreover, his strategy of selective studying backfires as more questions come from the chapters he skipped!

Rajesh comes home and starts thinking back on his day. “The cops don’t catch the ‘real’ culprits” he thinks. They pick on two-wheelers like us instead of catching the bigger culprits such as buses and autos. “It was a tough paper” he decides. “The teacher didn’t warn us!” referring to the chapters he skipped during selective study. And finally he concludes that he is plain unlucky.  Let’s say Rajesh’s friend Sudhir also has an exactly similar experience that day where he too gets caught by a cop and also fares badly in this exam. However, Sudhir’s reactions are quite different. “I messed up” he tells himself referring to his lack of adequate preparation for the exam. He vows to do better next time. “I need to be more careful when riding” he ponders realizing how dangerous it can be to jump lights especially if one is absent-minded.

It’s interesting to note how the same scenario results in totally opposite reactions depending on attitude and where the locus of control resides. For Rajesh, he has more external locus of control and does not take responsibility for this actions. He blames the cop, his teacher and the tough paper for his bad luck. On the other hand, Sudhir has an internal locus of control and is ready to take responsibility for his actions. And because he does so, he is able to make changes and improve his performance next time.

We often hear statements which clearly point towards an external locus. “I got it from my parents” (don’t tell me to change!); “Yes, I have a short fuse (don’t tell me to keep calm!); "The economy is bad” (don’t blame me for not meeting my numbers!) – the list is long. So next time you justify something to someone or even to yourself, ask yourself whether you are taking responsibility for your actions and displaying more internal locus of control.

If you want to assess your locus of control, take the test here

Parenting is leadership

The crucial early years of childhood are called the formative years. It forms the person and once formed, it becomes extremely difficult to change in adulthood. One of the biggest influencers of the formative years are none other than parents.

Hence, I am as fascinated by the subject of parenting as the subject of mind-sets and behaviours. Being a father of a set of teenagers, the question that keeps popping in my head is “When it comes to parenting, are we doing a better job than what our parents did?” There are two ways of looking at it – input and outcome. From an input perspective, we today tend to do quite a bit more. We attend more parent-teacher meetings and ask more questions of the teachers. I don’t recall much parent teacher meetings wherein my father would be in my school trying to find out in detail of how his ward was doing! We also spend a lot more time with our kids whether it be studying, eating out or watching movies. From an input perspective, we seem to be doing better but again that assumes more is better.

Things become fuzzier when we look at the outcome rather than input. Are our kids better behaved in general than what we were growing up? Are they more disciplined? Are they better human beings? Are they happier? Are they less stressed? There are no clear answers to those questions. Many will argue that it has a lot to do with the external environment – that even with good parenting, children today may turn out worse (e.g. unhappy, stressed etc.) purely as a function of things outside our control. While this may be true somewhat, I do not entirely buy this line of thinking. Just like in organizations where management is eventually responsible for the health of the organization, parents are eventually responsible for how their kids turn out as human beings. End of the day, parenting is really about leadership.

Once we take ownership and not blame the environment, it seems that we are not doing a better job than what our parents did. At best, we are doing the job as good as our parents. But why is that? Aren’t all the ‘quality time’ (doubt if my parents even knew of that term!!) helping? What about all the protection we are giving to our kids? We protect them financially, physically, socially, emotionally just so that they don’t fail. Isn’t that helping?

There is a beautiful story of how the eagle helps its young to fly. Once the eaglets were sufficiently grown, they would not fly on their own. The mother, despite her fears, knew it was time. Her parental mission was all but complete. There remained one final task – The PUSH. The eagle drew courage from an innate wisdom. Her children had to discover their wings and they needed to soar. The push was the greatest gift she had to offer. It was her supreme act of love. So, one by one, she pushed them. And they flew!

It seems that in the process of being protective, overprotective rather, we are only hampering the process of our children discovering their wings. We need to learn to let go. However, it’s easier said than done. It runs counter-intuitive to our notion of helping and protecting our children. Instead of helping them to fly, we become the ‘helicopter parents’ – constantly hovering over our children. Helicopter parenting only ends up with doing more disservice to our children. 

The Power of Empathy

Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.
— Henry Ford

If I were to add to that famous quote, this is how it would look:

Working together in time of a crisis is growth.

We have all been in a situation or are most likely to be in a situation, where the team goes through a crisis. At that point of time, our wish, hope and efforts are towards ensuring that the crisis be resolved as soon as possible. However, crisis situations present a lot of wonderful opportunities to the team. And one of the biggest opportunities is team building.

This story goes way back to the 90s. I was working as a lead developer in a project where we were improving some critical components of a software for our client, a major asset management company. This software was needed by them to process dividends for some of their mutual funds. Due to various technical difficulties that we were facing, we missed the deadline and got delayed by a week. The dividend processing time was approaching and the client was really worried – and rightfully so.

One evening we were trying to figure out a solution but were getting constantly interrupted by phone calls from the client. Being anxious, they were trying to get a status update almost every hour. As anyone can guess, none of these calls were particularly motivating to the team that was already struggling.

There was another customer who was visiting us on that day. My manager was busy with them and did not have much time for us till evening. He came to me around seven in the evening and asked me what the status was and what kind of help I needed from him. I updated him and told him that the frequent calls we were getting was a major source of distraction for us. He said, "you guys work on the solution and I will handle the calls". He got my phone forwarded to his number and started attending the calls. For the next three hours, he did not let any call come to us, neither did he come back and ask us about the status.

At around 10 , he came back to evaluate the status of the work and told us to go home for the night and insisted on it. He said we looked tired and the technical issue was not something that would be able to get resolved in next one hour or so. The next day, he was with us from the morning, isolating us from all outside distractions till around 8 pm, when we finally nailed the technical solution.

This simple incident had several key takeaways for me, which helped me shape my leadership skills in future. The key behaviours that my manager showed on that day brought me closer towards understanding the importance of empathy as a leader:

  • He did not add to the pressure which we already had. He simply tried to understand our position and offered help. We knew what to do, all we needed was distraction-free time. His attitude and behavior built huge amounts of trust and respect for him. A manager always needs to have the capability to understand the situation and demonstrate right behaviour suitable for the situation.
  • He showed trust in us. He did not rigorously monitor us on everything we were doing. As a manager knowing when to involve himself at the moment of crisis was the key. A manager is expected to operate with the right level of supervision, not at the extremes of micro-management or hands-off. It depends on the team’s maturity and the particular situation they are in.
  • He showed empathy. He was in as much pressure as we were in but he remained calm. He made us go home when he realized that we were tired. The empathy that he had for the team was a huge boost for the team morale at the time of crisis. When we returned the next morning we were fresh and recharged and ready to tackle the problem once again.

A time of crisis is always a testing time for the leader of the team. How a team behaves in the long run depends a lot on how the leader of the team behaved at the time of crisis. In the long run this team imitated the behaviour of the manager and became a high-performing team. In this the members trusted and helped each other, got involved in problem solving rather than pointing fingers.

I have seen many managers who think adding pressure to the team will always improve their performance; while that may work in certain situations, that can never be the rule for all situations. 

What this manager displayed was empathy and the fruits of it are trust, confidence and high-performance - things that every organization strive to bring into its culture.