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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.

Accept responsibility for failures as well as successes, December 1, 2006, 11C.

It has been a week since you took the final exam in your college class and you have been waiting anxiously for the grade to arrive in today’s mail.  Your friends know that you have been worried about your grade in the course and have gathered around the mailbox with you in anticipation of discovering the grade.  When the mail arrives, you find the envelope containing your grade and quickly tear it open.  With curious anticipation, your friends ask you about your grade.  You give them one of two answers—“I made an A” or “The professor gave me an F.”

The tendency to accept credit and responsibility for success and give away blame for failure to others and external forces is known as a fundamental attribution error and more specifically as self-serving bias.  The root cause for this tendency is that people like to feel good about and have positive self-images of themselves—and they do this when they succeed in the things that they take on.  Success breeds self-confidence and self-esteem.  When things go poorly, however, there is a tendency to give the blame for failure to external forces.  By attributing blame for failure to someone or something else, we protect our self-image and self esteem.

The errors in such processes affect our abilities to learn and grow.  People learn from failures and mishaps, but only when they accept responsibility for the outcomes, critically evaluate the causes for failure, and determine the corrective actions needed to succeed in the task in the future.  Through growth and success, self-image and self-esteem are enhanced—even when growth occurs as the result of initial failure.

Locus of Control is a personality dimension that relates to where individuals place responsibility for the causes of success and failure in their lives.  People with an “internal” locus of control believe that the successes and failures they experience in their lives are directly related to the energy and effort that they invest in the activities.  Oppositely, people with an “external” locus of control attribute the causes of success and failure in the tasks they undertake to forces outside of their control—they attribute outcomes to being in the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the wrong time.

Research shows that successful organizational leaders are those who accept responsibility for the successes and failures in their lives and learn and grow from their failures and successes.  They avoid giving away blame for mishaps because they know that growth and learning can occur when they discover and fix their mistakes.  Their perceptions of self-image and self-esteem are enhanced through the victories that come from successfully accomplishing things at which they may have previously failed.   When asked about failing grades, they accept responsibility for the outcomes and humbly proclaim that they “earned their Fs” and then correct their actions and succeed in their tasks the next time around.

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© 2006, 2007, 2008  Coleman Patterson, All Rights Reserved