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Success tip: Accept responsibility for your decisions

Posted 22 December 2013. Updated 26 December 2014.

What happens to us in life comes from two basic sources:

  1. Things which are outside our control. Examples are the family and country we are born in, our genetic endowment, things that happen as a consequence of other people's actions and pure accidents. We may be crippled because a tree branch just happens to fall on us while walking under it.
  2. Things which happen as a result of our own decisions. If we regularly consume more calories than our body needs, we will get fat, which in turn can damage our health. If we do not save, we risk being poor in old age.

When appraising people at PwC and advising people who I am mentoring, I have noticed that successful people accept responsibility for their decisions. They recognise that they have taken specific decisions, and if those decisions have led to a poor result they accept responsibility for the result and then look for ways to improve the position.

Conversely unsuccessful people often fail to acknowledge that the bad outcomes they experience in life are the natural consequences of the bad decisions that they have taken.

I used this as the theme for my 15th "Thought for the week" on BBC Radio Manchester delivered this morning which is reproduced below. As always, I was introduced as Co-Chair of the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester because I want to promote the organisation and what it does.

Thought for the week

I often mentor younger people. About a year ago, I was mentoring someone. Let’s call him Fred, not his real name.

I asked Fred to tell me about his career so far, which frankly has not gone well.

Part way through a long tale of many jobs which had gone nowhere, I pulled him up. I told Fred what was bothering me.

For every job, his basic story was the same. “I was at this firm, and this other person did something, so it worked out badly.”

None of his stories took the form “I chose to do this, and the following consequence happened.”

Fred saw his career only as a series of things that had happened to him, not as a series of thing that he had caused to happen.

Psychologists talk about the “locus of control” or in plain English, the place of control.

If you see control as internal, you believe that what happens in life is mainly down to your own actions and decisions.

If you see control as external, you believe that what happens in life is mainly down to what other people do.

All of us take decisions, small ones every day, such as what to eat, and big ones occasionally such as who to marry or what career to follow.

When I look back at my decisions, I can see that some of them were good, some were pretty average, and some were terrible. However I accept responsibility for every decision, and for the results that followed.

I studied hard at school, so I was able to go to Cambridge. I ate too much, so I became fat.

What does religion have to say about this?

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all teach that God controls everything that happens in the world. As it says in the Gospel of Matthew, no sparrow can fall to the ground except by the will of God.

However God’s power does not excuse us from taking responsibility for our own decisions.

Taking good decisions today is impossible if you deny any responsibility for the results of yesterday’s decisions.

The "locus of control"

Psychologists consider that where an individual places the "locus of control" ("locus" is Latin for "place"), whether it is internal or external, is an important part analysing that individual's personality. The concept was developed by Julian B. Rotter in 1954 and there is a very informative article about it on Wikipedia.

There is also an easier to read article "What Is Locus of Control?" by Kendra Cherry, who is described as a Psychology Expert.

You can test your own beliefs regarding the locus of control by taking a questionnaire which is based on Rotter's work. I did not find the questionnaire particularly useful since it was obvious for each multiple choice answer what questionnaire outcome would result from selecting the answer. However if you answer each question honestly, the questionnaire will tell you whether you have an internal or external locus of control.

My firm view is that people who have an internal locus of control are more likely to succeed, measuring success by traditional measures such as climbing a corporate hierarchy, earning more money as an employee or running a profitable business. However I have not undertaken any research to validate this.

I recommend reading the article "Leader Career Success & Locus of Control Expectancy" by Prof. Kurt April, PhD, University of Cape Town (South Africa) & Ashridge (UK) Babar Dharani, MBA, University of Cape Town (UK) Kai Peters, MBA, Ashridge (UK). While the authors' own research leads them to "conclude that higher levels of successes are achieved by individuals with an external locus of control expectancy" what makes the paper valuable is the extensive literature search it contains and its bibliography, much of which points the opposite way.


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