It’s Not Your Team, It’s You

When you learn a language, you think of words in it differently than how you think about words in your native tongue. I like the word “deflect.” I don’t know why, but it just has a nice ring to it. I like it so much that I worked on a (shuttered) developer-tool SaaS by that name some years ago. Do you know who else likes deflection? You, most likely.

“No matter what I say, they keep doing the same things.”

“They don’t care about the product, only working on interesting tech.”

“Product keep defining work wrong.”

“The CEO wouldn’t allow it.”

“The team simply doesn’t have a high-bar culture.”

How long has it been since you’ve said something along those lines, out loud or to yourself? Even the best executives I work with do this deflection by reflex from time to time. It’s leadership aikido.

It might be true

I can almost hear you mutter to yourself, “wait a minute! Those are all true!” I agree. The team might genuinely not care about the product right now. Perhaps the culture is out of whack when it comes to craftsmanship and quality.

That’s the only reason that deflection works as a coping and defense mechanism. If you’d simply say something that was clearly false, someone would call you out on it. You have a correct observation, at least subjectively. The issue is that you are abducting your responsibility for it.

Total Ownership

The most successful executives I work with are those who internalize that the vast majority of limits are self-imposed. If you deflect and put the blame on someone else, you teach yourself to be helpless. With time, you genuinely come to believe that you are powerless, as detailed in the (excellent) book Learned Optimism.

Reconsider the deflections above and think about what your role is in making those statements true. Why would the CEO allow something if you failed to make an articulated argument? This team you’re talking about, who hired it? Who has been managing and leading it?

Is everything entirely up to you? Of course not. A lot is, though. If you take ownership of the matter and decide to act, you will find ways to move forward in most cases. Do you know how just being told there’s a solution makes you find it? See a chessboard with the question “what would you do now,” and you might feel at a loss. Instead, if the prompt was “find the mate in two,” you are significantly more likely to find it. I once spent 90 minutes in an exam trying to prove P=NP because the instructor made an error writing the exam. I was told the given problem had a polynomial solution, and I gave it a damn good try.

Address your work problems with the same mindset. Take complete ownership. If you still come up empty, consider getting some help. But don’t just deflect.