Moving from Blame to Personal Responsibility: How Did I Create This?

Whenever something breaks down in my life, I ask a bizarre and useful question: How did I create this?

Of course, part of me rebels against this question. If I miss a deadline, for example, I’d rather blame it on the client, a technical glitch, the weather, an act of God—anything other than my own behavior. Yet when I break through this resistance, I discover the power to change.

Three ways to pose the question

In How The Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey suggest that we pose the following question about any of our major commitments: What are you doing or not doing that is keeping your commitment from being more fully realized?

This can be restated in a more pointed way: If you put together a quick list of the people you see as responsible for your commitment not being fully realized, would your name appear?

Or simply: How did I create this?

An example

Kegan and Lahey offer an example about a person who complains about being overwhelmed at work. So, how did she create this result? With a little self-observation, she discovered answers:

  • Agreeing to take on too many projects
  • Refusing to delegate tasks
  • Trying to complete projects without asking for the resources she needed

Whenever I complain about a situation in my life, I can usually make a similar list.

What is not implied by this question

This question is not suggesting that you bear all or even most of the responsibility for any breakdown in your life. In fact, your own behavior might have little to do with the problem. Actually, you might be doing a lot to prevent and solve breakdowns.

Life is messy, and many factors conspire to create any situation. How did I create this? simply prompts me to look for the factors that relate to me.

The good news

As Kegan and Lahey note, the language of personal responsibility “directs our attention to places where we have maximum influence.” If we’re doing something to create a problem, then we also have the power to stop doing it. And here we get a taste of freedom.

Other posts in this series: