Teaching Personal Responsibility

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Personal responsibility: Staying focused on what one can control directly—principally one’s own thoughts, words, and actions—and controlling one’s responses in the face of factors outside one’s own control.

Here is the reality: In any situation, there are factors beyond our control. For example, I feel gravity and time are constantly holding me back. What’s more, in any situation, there are factors within our control: our own thoughts, words, and actions.

Almost anyone can focus on the outside factors or the inside factors. In fact, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that most people have a tendency to point to outside factors beyond their control when explaining their own short-comings and failures, not to mention the successes of others. Not surprisingly, many people have a strong tendency to point to factors within their direct control when it comes to attributing our own successes—as well as the failures and short-comings of others.


The good news is that most people know how to focus on factors within their control. It’s just that we take our focus off those factors when we make excuses, blame others, and complain.


When it comes to teaching personal responsibility, the key is to keep focus on factors within the control of the individual. It’s important to teach others to ask themselves several key questions:

  • What is within my control right now? 
  • Where will I focus my attention and energy? 
  • What are my options? 
  • What’s the plan? 
  • What are my next steps? 
  • What are my next thoughts, words, and actions?

Here’s the message I recommend managers deliver as they try to convince young employees to care about developing personal responsibility: No matter how high or low your position, if you focus your attention and energy on factors outside your control, you will render yourself powerless. However, the flip side of this message is also true. No matter how high or low your position, if you focus your attention and energy on factors within your control, you will maximize your power.
Bottom line: In any situation, no matter how little is within your control, the way to make yourself more powerful is to focus like a laser beam on whatever thoughts, words, and actions you can take. In other words, focus on the choices you make and know the impact you have on others. Sometimes it is a very small amount of power, but more power is better than less power. Remember, the key is learning to ask yourself those critical questions—every step of the way. That’s how you increase your “response power” in any situation.

About the Author

Bruce Tulgan is a bestselling author and the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, a management research and training firm. He is the author of numerous books, including It’s Okay to Be the Boss; Not Everyone Gets a Trophy; and The 27 Challenges Managers Face. His newest book, The Art of Being Indispensable at Work, is due for release in the summer of 2020 from Harvard Business Review Press. You can follow Bruce on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his website at

Be the first to comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.