It’s Them is the Costliest Conversation in Life and Business

| | General Leadership

When something goes wrong we were trained to ask the question “Who is responsible?”. As a kid we learned to either run and hide when we heard that phrase or respond quickly with “It wasn’t me, it was _____” to save ourselves from punishment. Our parents and teachers worked hard to help us learn to take responsibility rather than run and hide or blame others, but didn’t that usually mean owning up to having done something wrong or taking the blame?

So is it any wonder we still react in similar ways with similar feelings when something isn’t going the way we planned? What about when our boss (or anyone we perceive as having power over us) is unhappy with what’s going on? Perhaps it’s not unlike how we feel when we see a cop in the rear view mirror even if we are not speeding. Somehow we still get that pit in our stomachs!

On the other side of this conversation are those who have actually done harm to us and really are to blame for it. There is not a person alive who has not been victimized in some way small or big in their lifetime. By victimized I mean being harmed by another. We have learned to defend ourselves and perhaps even seek to bring the guilty parties to justice in some way.


Unfortunately over time we have turned the reaction of “it’s them” into a practice of looking for who is to blame whenever the going gets tough. It’s not just a personal practice, it has become a cultural one. And it is costing us all in a big way.

When we ask the question “who is responsible/to blame?” we are talking about the past. We cannot change what happened and spending too time and energy on that conversation is a waste of time unless of course your purpose is to bring someone to justice. And we do waste a lot of time, not to mention energy, in that conversation. Sure it can be helpful to understand what went wrong, what mistakes we made, etc. so we can learn and perhaps prevent the problem from happening again. The key word here is “perhaps” because the complexity of our problems and speed of change today have reduced the value of analysis in many cases. There is a really good reason why the phrase “analysis paralysis” emerged in business conversation. Besides, fixing one problem often just illuminates another one. It’s a never ending cycle that doesn’t necessarily move us forward.

Yet there is a better far more empowering way to relate to the world, to our world, with all of its warts and problems. We can stop asking the question “who is to blame” and start asking the question “what could I/we do now?”. We can start thinking from a context of it is up to me, whatever “it” may be, rather than it is up to them. In doing so we take our focus off of the past we cannot change and put in on the future where we can actually make a difference. We also take our power back as individuals who can make a difference. Big or small, it all matters when it comes to our future.


“It’s up to me” is the fundamental context for leadership. One very simple way to identify possible acts of leadership you could take in any situation is to ask yourself the question “what could I do now to make a difference?” Leaders take personal responsibility for themselves and the world around them.

A key message from President Obama’s Inaugural Address yesterday was taking back responsibility for ourselves and for our country. This is our country and its future is up to us. But whether it is about your country, your company, your work group, your family or even yourself, it has to be even more personal than that for us to act. It must be up to me, the person who I see when I look in the mirror. So this is one case where taking things personally is highly recommended and empowering!

If I told you to go commit a “Random Act of Kindness” today you would likely immediately sense the kind of opportunities to look for. It would be simple and easy. Consider you can do the same thing when it comes to leadership. Committing an “Act of Leadership” can be just as simple as committing an act of kindness. It may take a bit more courage, but I assure you it can be just as satisfying.

YOUR MISSION FOR TODAY… should you choose to accept it is to commit a Random Act of Leadership. And don’t forget to tell us about it so we can all learn and encourage each other to keep going.


Enter A Comment

ccseed   |   21 January 2009   |   Reply

It’s so easy to lay the blame for current circumstances elsewhere. Regardless of misdeeds of others or the incompetence for that matter, any time I find myself pointing my finger at someone, I given into an unproductive cycle.

I work to let each instance of that impulsive reaction to be followed immediately with this thought: what is it I see over there that reveals something I do not see in my self. (Psychological projection is always devilish…)

Jay   |   21 January 2009   |   Reply

Great way to tell us to go out and take responsibility. May we all heed the call of Obama! I will try to complete your mission everyday! Thanks Susan!

Liara Covert   |   21 January 2009   |   Reply

Susan, you remind your readers of one of the principles Barack Obama seems to stand for and that is, taking responsibility. He inspires hope precisely because he does not deny involvement and because he chooses to be solutions-oriented. You may be interested in this post written on inauguration day;


semazza   |   22 January 2009   |   Reply

@CCSeed Always a great question to ask yourself when stuck in “it’s them” — “what is it I see over there that reveals something I do not see in my self?” Thanks for pointing that out.

Don’t just “put” yourself in their shoes, but “see” yourself in their shoes. It can not only be eye opening, but can point to the path to transform us/them into we.

@Jay Somehow I think you are not just “trying”

@ Liara This is a really great post for anyone interested in leadership to read. Thank you for sharing it!


Eric Werner   |   22 January 2009   |   Reply

It occurs to me that ‘It’s Them’ can apply not only to instances of what went wrong, but also to what didn’t go right, improvements that didn’t happen, creativity that didn’t get inspired, etc.

It reminds me of the book Free Prize Inside http://www.sethgodin.com/freeprize/

Seth Godin writes a very good description of the nature of innovation and more importantly explains how innovation is everyone’s responsibility. Rather than being something that happens in the research and development lab or only in upper management, innovation is something that each and every one of us can add to our work, community, and family lives.

He goes on to describe some of the factors that affect this in the workplace, how to start small with a cause that you can really champion, how to not expect everyone to jump at once when you have an idea but how persistent explanation of the benefits can result in real change.

tobeme   |   23 January 2009   |   Reply

You did a great job with this subject. The key is to take ownership of an issue/problem/opportunity. When we take ownership we create leadership. I practice random acts of leadership all day long by taking ownership of what comes my way.

Seth Simonds   |   25 January 2009   |   Reply

I think another result of the blaming game is that when an individual stands up and takes responsibility for a mistake, the tendency of superiors is to respond more harshly than they might otherwise.

Things would be simpler if we never tied our pride to projects and viewed everything with an eye for improved communication!

Thanks for a thoughtful and inspiring discussion.

Best to you!


Tom Volkar / Delightful Work   |   25 January 2009   |   Reply

Being self-employed, it’s all up to me. I guess that makes the leadership path easier to see. But we do have to inspire ourselves and choose well or we end up being very poor bosses to ourselves.

Henie   |   25 January 2009   |   Reply

What came up for me in this is the “Response” in the word “Responsibility.” It’s about responding rather than reacting that moves forward into the future.

The world would also do well with a little more empathy instead of “blamestorming.”

Thank you for inciting such powerful thoughts!


semazza   |   25 January 2009   |   Reply

@EricWerner Point well taken that it’s them is not just about what went wrong. “It’s up to them” as in our future is the context for complacency and unfortunately all too common especially in large organizations.

Thanks for the book recommendation. I am reading Seth Godin’s Tribes right now and it too is a wonderful book on leadership.

@tobeme I would love to here some of your personal examples and stories of acts of leadership – you can post them on the Add Your Stories tab.

@SethSimmonds It is unfortunate that some of the very people who most need to reinforce the idea of personal responsibility in the workplace unwittingly squash it’s existence.

@Henie Your comment reminded me of my favorite definition of responsibility by Gustav Mahler “Responsibility is retaining the ability to respond.”

@TomVokar Self employment certainly requires living from a context of “it’s up to me”. What advice do you have for someone with a job who wants to embrace this idea?