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We all like to believe that we’re entirely responsible for our successes and that others are to blame when we fail – but it’s useful to accept that this isn’t always the case

We all deserve a pat on the back sometimes. You’ve pulled off that sale that helps your department to meet its targets. You’ve successfully delivered a change programme on time and on budget while keeping your team on board. Or perhaps you simply won the parents’ egg-and-spoon race at your children’s sports day this summer. Whatever the achievement, the point is that you’re feeling pleased with yourself.

It’s only human to be more likely to chalk up a success to our own achievements – but it’s also likely that when things go wrong, we blame someone or something else. We didn’t achieve our sales target this quarter – it was John’s fault for not circulating that list of new prospective clients in time. The presentation to the board didn’t go well. Why? Because they’re not interested in the issue we were talking about, important though it is. The reason why I came last in the egg-and-spoon race is nothing to do with my level of fitness or hand-to-eye coordination and everything to do with that guy distracting me when the whistle blew to signal the off.

Now, new research by the Pew Research Center in the US illustrates another aspect of this natural human inclination. It refers to attitudes about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). According to the survey a majority of white Americans believe that it’s neither easier nor harder for them to succeed at work because of their ethnicity. On the other hand, Black, Hispanic, and Asian workers are far more likely to believe that ethnicity affects people’s ability to be successful.

Success – purely down to our own abilities?

When we succeed at work or when we consider how we’ve managed to achieve success so far in our careers it can be tempting to attribute these attainments entirely to our own abilities. But it’s important to think objectively and to challenge these cosy, self-congratulatory assumptions. One reason is that it’s simply about being honest with ourselves and not falling into the trap of believing that we’re cleverer, more hard working, more experienced and better trained than we really are.

Another reason is that acknowledging the contribution that colleagues have made to our successes – and thanking them for this help – is a good way to build team spirit. If this relates to junior members of the team, then recognition and gratitude is even more important. A third reason is that it’s only by understanding the limitations of our efforts that we can identify where we need to grow and develop.

Yes, I lead the team that delivered that project, but would it have failed if Jane hadn’t been great about keeping a keen eye on the budget or Phil hadn’t worked so hard to ensure that the team remained motivated when it looked like we’d never make it. If this really is the case then, as well as thanking Jane and Phil publicly, perhaps for my own personal development, I might need to think about improving my budgeting skills or thinking carefully about how I manage the morale of my team and connect with them.

When things go wrong…

The same is true when things go wrong. Yes, the fact that Peter messed up the figures or that Rachel had to take a day off to look after her son when we were finishing the proposal probably cost us that important contract. But, in the cold light of day, what share of the blame should I take? Did I not keep a close enough eye on Peter’s accountancy work or should I have allocated more people to the project so that if someone had to take a day off, we’d still be OK?

Just like acknowledging the role that others play our in our success, accepting our responsibility when things fail also enables us to know ourselves better and identify areas for improvement and development. Facing these possibilities also helps us to be better team leaders.