Uncomfortable Words We’d Rather Not Hear: #1 — Personal Responsibility

Wouldn’t it be great if we could get through life – or at least our work day – without any unpleasantries?  Alas, we all know that won’t happen.  Not only do we have to deal with difficult situations and trying people, but even our language contains words that make us uncomfortable and anxious.

In this series of posts, I’m going to identify five uncomfortable words that we would rather not hear, and propose a solution to dealing with them.

Here’s the first:  Personal Responsibility.

I’m sure you are familiar with the concept.  The idea is that every person is responsible for their own actions, and that those actions have consequences.  As a general rule, therefore, most people have created their own circumstances through the decisions they made and the actions they have taken.

Of course, there are exceptions.  People are born with disabilities, or encounter situations over which they have no control.   Someone is injured in a car accident or orphaned at an early age, for example.  Granted, events over which we have no control can overtake us and shape our lives.  However, for the mass of humanity, at least in our work lives, the truth still remains that, generally speaking, we get what our actions have brought to us.

That idea, too many, if not the majority of folks, is a troubling, uncomfortable thought.  It’s easy to see why.  Every day we are presented with examples supporting just the opposite view.  The media glorify the victims.  The courts are full of people wanting someone else to blame for their circumstances, and the government exists, at least in part, to buffer people from the consequences of their actions.

In this environment, the specter of personal responsibility takes on the semblance of a monster in the latest teenage horror movie – something to avoid and run from whenever it pops up.

I see this phenomenon most frequently in my work improving the effectiveness of sales systems and salespeople. Get a group of salespeople together and listen to the litany of reasons why sales aren’t as good as they should be.  It’s the company, the product, the service, the price, the competition, the customers – everything but themselves.  The idea that they could improve everything by improving themselves – personal responsibility – hardly ever crops up.  It’s been my observation that in any random group of 20 salespeople, only one has invested $25 in his own improvement in the last 12 months.  Only one of 20 get it – that their results are produced by their efforts.  And they can improve their efforts.  Only one of 20 accept personal responsibility.

I suspect that salespeople are no different than the rest of us.  Probably that one in-20 ratio holds true for many professions and careers.  James Allen said, many decades ago:

Men are often interested in improving their circumstance, but are unwilling to improve themselves, they, therefore, remain bound.

Getting to the point where you accept personal responsibility for your own life, your career, and your business can be a life-changing step in the journey, freeing you of the internal constraints of a ‘victim’ mentality, and springboarding you to a life of greater achievement and fulfillment.

At least it was for me.  Here’s my story.

I had been the number one salesperson in the nation for a company – my first full time professional sales job.  I had it made – adequate salary, good benefits, company car, bonus potential, and the respect of my employer and colleagues.  But the opportunities were limited, and I decided to move on to a job that was completely different.  I took a sales job with a new company, selling surgical staplers to hospitals.  It was a leap from the secure job I had to one that paid straight commission, and for which I had to buy my own samples and literature from the company.

But I was cocky, filled with the success of my previous job, and sure that I could make this work also.  It wasn’t hasty.  I looked at the amount of existing business in the territory I was slated to get, and determined that if I could double the business within six months—a doable task, I was assured – I’d be back making about what I was used to.  Then, as I increased the business, my income and lifestyle would evidence the difference.

It all sounded good, and I left my old job and arrived in New York City for six weeks of intensive training in the new one.  During the time that I was there, my district manager was replaced.  When I arrived home after the training, the new manager was eager to meet with me.  In our first meeting, before I had a chance to begin working, he informed me that he had revised the sales territories. The territory that I thought I had — the one I was hired for – was not the one I was going to get.  Instead, I was going to receive just a fraction of that.  And the new territory only contained about 1/3 of the existing business of the previous one.  This change meant my plans for making a living were shot. It now became an impossible task.

I was upset and angry.  How could they do that to me? At this time, I had five kids to support. I immediately began to look for another job, determined to quickly leave this unethical, uncaring company.

Things got worse.  As I interviewed several companies, I discovered that they saw me as the problem.  Instead of understanding what the company had done to me, they thought I was an opportunist who was looking for an easy way out.  Basically, no one else was going to hire me!

I grew more and more angry and bitter.  In addition, I had little success selling the staplers.  After six months, my temporary draw came to an end. I owed the company $10,000, was making almost nothing, and had no prospects for another job.  I felt squeezed between the proverbial rock and hard place.

Somewhere in there, I had an epiphany.  Yes, the company was unethical. Yes, they had done a bad thing to me.  But the reason I was not achieving had nothing to do with that.  It was my fault!  It was me. It was my anger, my bitterness, my resentment –yes, my “victim attitude” that was keeping me back. The product was still exciting, and the opportunity was still great. The real problem was my attitude – my bitterness and anger were getting in the way of everything.

So, I accepted my responsibility to change my performance.  I saw that I had to change my attitude.  I set about to do so.  I looked up Bible verses that were very inspiriting.  Versus like, “If God is for you, who can be against you?”  I wrote them down on 3X5 cards. Then, as I drove into my territory every day along I-96 in Detroit, I held them in my hand on the steering wheel and read them over and over to myself.  Slowly I began to do away with my bitter attitude, and replace it with hope and expectation.

My results began to change also.  Things began to go better.  Six months later, I had paid off the debt to the company and was making more money than I thought possible.  The job became more fun, more financially rewarding, and more fulfilling than anything I ever expected.

The change happened when I accepted my personal responsibility.

I’m probably not unique.

I discovered that which millions of others have found.  When you choose to remain a victim and hold that your circumstances are the result of someone else, you live in a world of anger, impotence, and depression.  When you accept personal responsibility, you go forth with empowerment and expectation.

Personal responsibility is not to be shrugged off and avoided, it should be embraced.


Dave Kahle
Dave Kahle
YOUR business can be much more than just a money-making enterprise. Helping you achieve that potential is Dave Kahle’s passion. He has been helping business grow for 30 years. The author of The Good Book on Business, he’s written 12 other books, which have been published in eight languages and distributed around the world, and has presented in 47 states and 11 countries. He has personally and contractually worked with over 459 companies, and touched thousands of others through his seminars, speaking engagements, and webinars. You’ll find him challenging your paradigms and prompting you to think more deeply.

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  1. Dear Dave, thank you most kindly – I thoroughly enjoyed reading your wonderful testimony .. and looking back it also brought many a memory to the reality of today.

    I too have a number of “reminder cards, mine was 2 x 4 that could easily fit into my jacket pocket – now they are part of my scrap book. Please allow me to share a few of my ‘cards’, that have found its way into my Memory Book (not scrapbook)

    “The man who complains about the way the ball bounces is likely to be the one who dropped it.”- Lou Holtz

    “In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility. Eleanor Roosevelt

    “Ninety-nine percent of all failures come from people who have a habit of making excuses.” — George Washington Carver

    “It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.” – J. W. Goethe

    In her book Return to Love, Marianne Williamson shares, “You may believe that you are responsible for what you do, but not for what you think. The truth is that you are responsible for what you think, because it is only at this level that you can exercise choice. What you do comes from what you think.”.

    If you want to be really successful, and I know you do, then you will have to give up blaming and complaining and take total responsibility for your life — that means all your results, both your successes and your failures. That is the prerequisite for creating a life of success. – Jack Canfield

    Thank you once again Dave – I look forward to reading the next part of your series.