Radical Ownership vs. Disempowerment

Principal 2

Nothing new here, but an extremely valuable reminder. You know and have probably heard about this very scenario a couple of times. In fact, you probably have experienced exactly this type of scenario yourself at some point. If not, well you just made me extremely jealous of your work environment. Here we go.

There is a meeting/class/appointment scheduled for 10:30am. The other person comes at 11:00am proclaiming “Sorry, the train was 30 min late again”.  I am sure most of you sat there thinking: “NO, it wasn’t the trains fault!! More appropriate would be “Sorry, I didn’t account for the fact that the train might be 30 minutes late again” “This is what you might want to call radical disempowerment. This is when people take themselves completely out of the equation, by assigning themselves no agency whatsoever regarding the outcome.

Sheryl Sandberg actually spoke about this during a talk at the Entrepreneurial Thought Leader segment at the Stanford University in 2013. The label/idea, however, apparently didn’t spread that far since 2013, given that former Navy Seal Jocko Willink just recently managed to publish a bestseller (called extreme ownership) on the very same topic. In her talk Sheryl Sandberg gave an example of children walking up to you with a sad face before informing you “Mammy/Daddy the toy broke”. The important phrasing here is that THE TOY BROKE, not I broke the toy. Well… wonder how the toy you were playing with managed to just break. The way they tell you, you immediately notice that the child itself sees itself by no means responsible for that outcome but instead as the victim.  While this is a understandable behavior by children, it is less so by for example a project manager who is late on delivery or a university student who received a bad grade.


There are three final thoughts which are exceptions to or at least in my opinion important variables for the concept of radical disempowerment/ownership:

  1. Your ability to assess the probability of potential issues
    1. The predictability of the event. Predictable vs. Unforeseeable (Black Swan)
    2. Your access to the necessary information to predict.
  2. Your ability to influence the outcome
    1. Inevitable events/scenarios
  3. Neglecting radical ownership for psychological reasons

Here a quick example for each of the above points.

Ability to assess potential influences on outcome

“I know traffic is bad on Monday mornings, which is why I left an additional 30 minutes earlier. However, I honestly didn’t expect there to be a huge car crash which led to an additional 1 hours delay.”  Sometimes you simply might lack the information, analytical abilities or simply leftover attention to account for all of the millions of potentialities that can influence the very thing you took ownership off.


Ability to alter potential outcome

“Sorry for being late again. Given I currently live outside the city and work long hours, this really doesn’t leave me much more time to leave earlier to avoid potential traffic issues, unless I really cut my sleep.  I have been trying to move closer to work, but simply haven’t found anything available yet.”

Uff.. this was a harder scenario to construct. Obviously, everyone has different thresholds for what they would do for their work etc., but I hope you get the general idea of what I tried to illustrate.      Do you have any good examples of scenarios where outside circumstances simply prevented you from altering the outcome despite you mentally taking full ownership?

Sometimes it can be healthy not to assume ownership for a given scenario

Neglecting to have influence on a certain outcome can be a very healthy safety mechanism against psychological distress. Are you responsible for the bad mood of every person you interact with? Maybe….but how might it affect you if you take ownership for all these instances which despite your effort to be nice to other?


Enacting Radical Ownership

The above was about what not to do. Now here is what some people would appreciate you’re colleague to do instead. While it might still not serve as an excuse, your colleague might come 30 minutes late to the meeting and instead of blaming the traffic say “Sorry, I didn’t account for the fact that the train might be 30 minutes late again”. In the ideal case he/she doesn’t just understand their own influence on the outcome, but also take the necessary steps to prevent the undesired outcome. This might result in your colleague being on time for the meeting at 10:30am and instead saying “I knew there was a chance that traffic is bad on Monday morning, which is why I left an additional 30 minutes earlier to be on time.  So let’s get started! “. This becomes increasingly complex the more other individuals are involved in achieving the desired outcome.



Enacting Radical ownership to varying degrees

The more important the outcome the more you might account for lesser certain events.

If you have scheduled a sales meeting in another town, which you have been working on for a year and which would result in a 2 million dollar contract, you probably wouldn’t leave for it in the morning expecting traffic to probably be smooth like most days allowing you to make it just in time.

Instead you will probably drive there the day before and get a hotel nearby so you can avoid any potential risk related to traffic. You thereby also account for very unlikely but possible major car crashes or extreme weather events.  You take radical ownership of the situation, by accepting the hypothesis that the outcome is in your control and worth the tradeoff.

Thanks for your attention. Truly appreciate you sharing your most valuable thing with me.