Own The Behavior

The system is big and complex and its output is outside your control. Trying to control these outputs is a depressing proposition, yet we’re routinely judged (and judge ourselves) on outputs.  I think it’s better to focus on system inputs, specifically your inputs to the system.

When the system responds with outputs different than desired, don’t get upset. It’s nothing personal. The system is just doing its job. It digests a smorgasbord of inputs from many agents just like you and does what it does. Certainly it’s alive, but it doesn’t know you. And certainly it doesn’t respond differently because you’re the one providing input. The system doesn’t take its output personally, and neither should you.

When the system’s output is not helpful, instead of feeling badly about yourself, shift your focus from system output to the input you provide it. (Remember, that’s all you have control over.) Did you do what you said you’d do? Were you generous? We’re you thoughtful? We’re you insightful? Did you give it your all or did you hold back? If you’re happy with the answers you should feel happy with yourself. Your input, your behavior, was just as it was supposed to be.  Now is a good time to fall back on the insightful grade school mantra, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.”

If your input was not what you wanted, then it’s time to look inside and ask yourself why. At times like these it’s easy to blame others and outside factors for our behavior. But at times like these  we must own the input, we must own the behavior. Now, owning the behavior doesn’t mean we’ll behave the same way going forward, it just means we own it. In order to improve our future inputs we’ve got to understand why we behaved as we did, and the first step to better future inputs is owning our past behavior.

Now, replace “system” with “person”, and the argument is the same. You are responsible for your input to the person, and they are responsible for their output (their response). When someone’s output is nonlinear and offensive, you’re not responsible for it, they are. Were you kind? Thoughtful? Insightful? If yes, you get what you get, and you don’t get upset. But what if you weren’t? Shouldn’t you feel responsible for their response? In a word, no. You should feel badly about your input – your behavior – and you should apologize. But their output is about them. They, like the system, responded the way they chose. If you want to be critical, be critical of your behavior. Look deeply at why you behaved as you did, and decide how you want to change it. Taking responsibility for their response gets in the way of taking responsibility for your behavior.

With complex systems, by definition it’s impossible to predict their output. (That’s why they’re called complex.) And the only way to understand them is to perturb them with your input and look for patterns in their responses. What that means is your inputs are well intended and ill informed. This is an especially challenging situation for those of us that have been conditioned (or born with the condition) to mis-take responsibility for system outputs. Taking responsibility for unpredictable system outputs is guaranteed frustration and loss of self-esteem. And it’s guaranteed to reduce the quality of your input over time.

When working with new systems in new ways, it’s especially important to take responsibility for your inputs at the expense of taking responsibility for unknowable system outputs. With innovation, we must spend a little and learn a lot. We must figure out how to perturb the system with our inputs and intelligently sift its outputs for patterns of understanding. The only way to do it is to fearlessly take responsibility for our inputs and fearless let the system take responsibility for its output.

We must courageously engineer and own our behavioral plan of attack, and modify it as we learn. And we must learn to let the system be responsible for its own behavior.

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Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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