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6 words that will get you unstuck

Dealing with problems is hard enough; don't blame yourself for the ones that aren't your fault.

5 min read



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Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., an advertising agency that specializes in working with stalled, stuck and stale brands. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

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When was the last time something you did (or failed to do) created a serious problem for your business? When did you last choke, blow it or screw something up — personally? If you’re good at what you do, it may have been a while, and it probably doesn’t happen very often. On those rare occasions when it does, you no doubt take your lumps, do your best to make things right, and move on.

Contrast that with the last time you had to deal with a problem not of your own making. I’m willing to bet it was this week. Perhaps even this morning. You may be dealing with it this minute. The more responsibility you have in the organization, the more the buck stops at your desk. Fixing what’s broken is your job. The question is whether (and to what extent) it’s your burden.

As a seasoned professional I, like you, don’t screw up all that often. But gnarly problems still find their way to my desk with some frequency. In fact, one way of looking at business is as an endless sequence of dragons to be slain. Understood in that light, the battle can be invigorating. But it’s something with which we all must come to grips.

When my company had its near-death experience many years ago, one of the reasons it took us so long to recover was the discouragement I felt as “The One Responsible.” As president of the firm, I naturally thought that our problems were of my making, and morning after morning the bleary eyes staring back at me in the mirror provided no solutions.

It wasn’t until we had done our first wave of research among other formerly fast-growing companies that I learned that nearly one in five were facing circumstances like ours. It occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t about me. Oh, it was still my problem. But it wasn’t my fault.

“Not my fault. Is my problem.”

That realization — that demarcation — has paid dividends for many years now as I’ve learned to distinguish between the burden I should rightly bear when I make a mistake and the blessing I find in solving problems created by circumstances beyond my control. I learned how difficult it is to be creative when you’re discouraged (and nearly impossible when you’re depressed). If the problem I’m facing is of my own making, of course, I feel bad about it, as I should (for a time). If it’s not, however, I no longer do.

This way of thinking works at both the micro and macro level. When day-to-day issues cross your desk, you have no choice but to take them on. Sometimes you can handle them in stride; in other cases they wreck your day or even your week. The farther up the corporate chain you rise, the more intractable the issues you face become. Tiny dragons get slain down the line. You get the fire-breathers.

But it’s also true at a broader level. Companies, and even industries, experience cycles of growth, maturation and decline.

In our most recent wave of research, completed earlier this year, we found that 31% of respondent companies’ growth was accelerating, 39% were in a healthy phase of maturation, and 29% were facing the pressures of saturation and commoditization. When nearly a third of the economy is struggling even when conditions are relatively healthy, it’s a fair bet every company’s turn in the tank is coming. When it’s your time, it’s probably not your fault. It’s merely your problem.

Allow me to offer three simple steps which, if you can make them a mental habit, will help you overcome the self-blame game: recognize, categorize and strategize.

The one in the middle is the key; when you recognize an unfortunate issue that needs to be dealt with, pause for a moment and honestly categorize whether it’s your fault or merely your problem. If it’s the latter (and it usually is), you can dispense with all the negative energy and focus your creativity on strategizing solutions. You’ll be more inventive, more productive, and more likely to succeed. You’ll sleep a lot better at night, too. 

Not everybody is inclined to guilt and self-loathing, and shame does play a valuable role in regulating human behavior. But misplaced culpability is destructive: to business, to relationships and to your own mental health. Dragons are difficult enough to slay; the last thing you need is to feed them.