Start With the Center of the Circle©

I love when I learn something new or gain a new perspective on something, and that is precisely what happened this past week thanks to my dear friend, David Akers! David is an innovative entrepreneur, a deep thinker and a good question asker, and he often has a way of communicating an idea or concept in a different way that makes it easier for others to understand and integrate. A great example of this is David’s Circle of Responsibility. The concept is not new, and it’s actually something that I talk about (in a slightly different way) in my book Unmask, but David’s circle concept adds another layer of clarity.

The Circle of Responsibility is a concept to invoke whenever something has not gone as planned or anticipated – a rubric for any situation that needs to be evaluated or assessed. For example, perhaps an issue or misunderstanding has arisen with a team member, a client or even a family member. Maybe a project did not go as planned, a deadline was missed or a goal was not achieved. Whatever the topic, the Circle of Responsibility is a powerful and important way to approach its assessment and, ultimately, its solution or resolution.

Here’s a quick graphic of the Circle of Responsibility:

Start in the Center of the Circle-1

The typical response for many people when an issue arises is to start at the outside circle, pointing the finger at others by blaming, accusing or attributing cause to someone else. Even if there is evidence to support this conclusion, if you start with They (the outside circle) it’s often difficult to get back to assessing your own role—the only area you can understand fully and can take full control over for a solution.

The middle circle (shared focus, concentrating on the We) is the opportunity to review and assess what they and you did or did not do that caused the issue, shortcoming or challenge. While this is always an important point to review, address and discuss (especially if everyone is committed to a collaborative resolution), there will be situations where they (the others) will not be willing or ready to engage in this collaborative conversation. Thus, while you may be interested in going here, it takes two to tango and you have no assurance that all the parties will engage in this cooperative exchange and assessment.

In addition, as with the outside circle, if you start in the middle circle, there’s a risk that you might not get back to your own self-assessment and responsibility. Simply put, it’s more difficult to self-reflect after you’ve put your time, energy and focus on someone else (the They) or on the collective responsibility (the We).

This brings us to the inside circle – the Me circle – which is the best place to begin whenever things don’t go as hoped or expected. There are several reasons for taking this inside out and self-reflective approach at the outset:

  • If you begin with you (the Me circle), it enhances the likelihood that They will be open to assessing their own performance.
  • You are the only one that you have complete control over in terms of thoughts, actions and reactions.
  • When you start with you, it ensures that you’ll take a close look at the ways that you contributed to the issue or challenge and that you’ll assess what you can do differently in the future (even if you don’t believe that you were the cause of the issue in a specific situation). Conscious leaders are always committed to what they can do differently, even if the other person or persons take responsibility for the outcome.

The power of starting with the inner (self-assessment) circle is compelling and impactful.

Let’s explore an example of how the Circle of Responsibility works (or does not work). Assume that an issue has arisen with a strategic partner of your organization involving the failure to deliver as promised to a client. Further assume that your strategic partner failed to communicate certain information to the client, which (at a minimum) had some impact on the failure that occurred. The easiest place to start (especially when you believe you have information to support it) is with the outside circle – blame the strategic partner for the failure.   However, if you start by pointing the finger of blame at the strategic partner (even if this pointing is only internal within your team or organization), then it’s difficult to get back to the internal (inside circle) assessment.

In addition, if you go first to the outside circle of blame (the They) and that gets communicated (directly or indirectly), it can create obstacles to even reaching the second circle of shared responsibility and collaborative problem solving.

In contrast, if you start with the Me – what could I or we have done to avoid or minimize the issues or what did I or we do to contribute to the issue – then the door is open to solution, the door is open to collaboration (if They are open to it) and you can (if necessary) address a solution even without the They’s participation. Obviously, the goal is to work together, but you never truly control the They (in this case your strategic partner). In addition, your own awareness, growth and improvement can only happen if you are deeply committed to the inside circle (the Me).

Let’s be honest – going first to the outside circle is easy and it feels good. It’s often a natural reaction, which sometimes can result in venting. There’s nothing wrong with venting, and it actually can be healthy since it allows you to release some of the energy and emotions to allow you to move forward. However, you can’t vent at the They (this defeats the purpose and often the process) and you can’t continue to vent, since ongoing venting is nothing but blaming and avoiding.

To simplify, here’s the way to approach the next situation when things don’t work out the way you had hoped or planned and there are more than one person involved.

  • Start with the inside circle (the Me) – What did you do or not do, what could you have done differently, what will you do different in the future, what did you learn and what are you prepared to do to resolve the situation even without the They involved (if necessary)?
  • Next go the second circle (the We) – Assess the collective breakdowns, engage the They (if they’re willing) and collaboratively resolve the issue and develop solutions to avoid the shortfall in the future.

That’s it – a simple two step process.

What about the outside circle you ask – the They? If you follow this process, you only get to the outside circle if the They are not willing to self-assess and take personal responsibility. IF they fully and accurately take that personal responsibility, then you both go to the second circle (the collaborative We). If not, then you have a different issue and you may be left to address the issue and develop the solutions on your own (which you can do without the outside circle).

In other words, there’s rarely a need to go to the outside circle and, if you start with the inside circle and work your way out, then you’ll already have everything that you need to address whatever issues arise. You’ll also have the learning and understanding you need both for this issue and for future issues (including avoiding the same issues in the future).

The 3-circle approach is the antidote to the typical blame game. And what does blaming others first really get you but a lot of frustrated energy with no meaningful outcome?  If you are truly interested in results, don’t play the blame game. Instead, begin with you in mind, take personal responsibility, self-assess and then move toward the collaborative solution if that opportunity exists. Focus on the only thing you fully control – YOU!

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