Take responsibility or hold responsible - you can't do both

Taking responsibility prevented me from holding others responsible. I learned this the hard way when I blamed myself for bad and harmful facilitation of Circling events, when I should demand better facilitation instead.

Own your experience.

  • Circling Europe Principle

Taking full responsibility for yourself is a principle in Circling and many other self-development organisations and spritual traditions.

Although taking full responsibility can drive powerful personal development, it comes with a harmful side-effect: Organisations that are unable to learn from the feedback they receive. This can lead to self-doubt, low confidence and more in participants.

In this article I explore how to deal with positive and negative feedback. I contrast taking responsibility with holding others responsible. I explore organisations that do not learn from feedback and take all the credit, but none of the blame.

To prevent harm, I will propose a skillful way to balance taking responsibility with holding others responsible that facilitates both personal and organisational development.

Two perspectives on feedback

Whenever you give feedback, we can take one of two perspectives:

  1. The personal growth perspective: Take responsibility - what does the feedback reflect about me?
  2. The organisational growth perspective: Hold the organisation responsible - what does the feedback reflect about the organisation?

Example: “I had a breakthrough insight”

With positive feedback you can choose:

  1. Personal growth: I take responsibility for my inner wisdom and reflect on my mindset, attitude and skill.
  2. Organisational growth: I hold the organisation responsible and reflect on the excellent facilitation.

Example: “I did not feel safe”

With negative feedback you can choose:

  1. Personal growth: I take responsibility for my psychological issues and reflect on my struggle to feel safe.
  2. Organisational growth: I hold the organisation responsible for creating a safe environment.

The case for personal growth: Take responsibility

Take for example: “I did not feel safe”

This feedback can reveal more about ourselves than the other. Feedback can be a projection of our unresolved issues. As we blame others for our predicament, we disempower ourselves to improve the situation. We are stuck in perpetuating the same dysfunctional habits, again and again.

Therefore, when we are encouraged to take full responsibility, we are forced to reflect on ourselves. This can lead to insight that empowers effective action.

In our example, we might become aware of what triggers a sense of unsafety in us. We might discover a habit of moving towards threatening situations. With our triggers and habits revealed, we can take effective action: Avoid the trigger and move away from threatening situations.

When the organisation is held responsible, it can create more safety as a response. This avoids dealing with the real issue, as unsafety is likely to be a recurring theme in life. Although we are momentarily relieved from unsafety, the organisation has failed to provide us an opportunity for deeper learning.

The stronger our dysfunctional habits, the more intense feedback we will give, and the stronger the pull on the organisation to take the blame. It can be challenging for the organisation to remain grounded in the principle that participants take full responsibility, as it is tempting to resolve the tension. However, as soon as the organisation agrees with the feedback, we lose an opportunity for deeper self-reflection. Therefore, the better an organisation can resist the pull to take the blame, the more profound and deep self-reflection will be.

The case for organisational growth: Hold responsible

Let us continue with our example: “I did not feel safe”

In a Circling environment, the facilitator might be unskilled in dealing with the psychological issues that come to surface. As a result, one or more participants may be retraumatized, shocked and disoriented. They may struggle to self-regulate their emotions back to a healthy state.

As participants adhere to the principle of self-responsibility, they cultivate awareness about their triggers, learn about trauma psychodynamics and develop skill in emotional self-regulation.

In the meanwhile, opportunities to improve the organisation are lost. For example, the organisation could share knowledge about trauma beforehand, improve therapeutic skills of facilitators and improve screening of participants.

An organisation that demands participants to take responsibility for everything, cannot be held responsible for anything. The principle of taking responsibility is used to deflect feedback back to participants. As such, the organization struggles to learn.

And the situation gets worse. When participants take full responsibility, they also deserve to get credit for the positive feedback. This is rarely the case. I often see positive feedback attributed to the organisation (excellent facilitation) while negative feedback is attributed to the participant (psychological issue). These organisations take all the credit, but none of the blame.

Here are some strategies organisations use to deflect feedback:

Strategies to deflect feedback

1. Reflect on the participant
This uses the self-responsibility principle to chose the personal growth perspective:

  • How does that feel for you?
  • You seem frustrated, is that true?
  • This seems a defense mechanism, what are you protecting?
  • Others have never said this, so it must be your path.

2. Share an emotional impact
The organisation responds with an emotion, but does not actually reply to the content of your feedback:

  • That is painful to hear (guilt tripping)
  • That is not accurate, you are making assumptions (gaslighting)
  • I feel angry hearing this (intimidation)

3. Ignore the feedback
Feedback is ignored, especially in digital communication.

In all cases, the organization:

  1. does not address the content of the feedback.
  2. does not acknowledge how they contributed to your experience.
  3. does not commit to action to improve the organisation.

An organization that fails to acknowledge structual issues is not only unable to learn, it also harms its participants by demanding self-reflection:

  1. It disempowers the participant to take action, as the organisation is unwilling to cooperate.
  2. It generates self-doubt, self-critism and dimishes trust in own judgement: Maybe I’m wrong and it is me, after all?
  3. Over time, the courage to ask for what you need is exhausted: I give up - they don’t hear me.

Of course, these organisations would not exist if participants demanded of the organisation to improve itself. Indeed, participants that grow frustrated leave the community, while participants that stay often show risk factors for harmful self-responsibility.

Based on my experience, this is what I see:

Risk factors and resources for harmful self-responsibility

Risk factors for harmful self-responsibility:

  • An eagerness for self-reflection.
  • A willingness to doubt oneself.
  • A peacekeeper or harmony seeker.
  • Conflict avoidant.
  • Invested time, money or emotion in the organisation.
  • Difficulty saying no or setting boundaries.
  • Sensitive for other emotions (i.e. susceptible to emotional pressure).
  • Self-doubt, low confidence or strong inner critic.
  • The belief that facilitator has superior skill or insight.
  • Faith in the ideology of the organisation.

Resources to prevent harmful self-responsibility:

  • A strong opinion of what is right and wrong.
  • A strong sense of self and boundaries.
  • Critical or independent thinking.
  • Confidence in own knowledge and skill.
  • Willingness to risk conflict.
  • Willingness to quit the organisation, regardless of investment.
  • Knowledge and awareness of the unhealthy dynamics described in this article.
  • Connections outside the organisation that help you maintain your frame of reference.
  • A gut feeling something is not right.

I certainly recognize a lot of risk factors in myself, which why I was pulled in the Circling community. However, I am a strong critical thinker with a gut feeling something was off. After a long time, I could finally describe why my gut feeling was off: I had the knowledge and awareness to see the dynamics described above. I was invested in the community, so I first tried to improve the situation. Of course, my feedback were deflected and I was unsuccesful. After a while, I gave up and left the community.

I have seen others progress to similar stages. If you are in an organisation that takes all the credit, but none of the blame, I recommend you leave immediatly. If you are invested, leaving will be hard. It is common to rationalize the issue away or believe that you can improve the situation. If needed, then by all means, try to improve the situation until you are exhausted and give up. This exhaustion will fuel your motivation to leave the organisation.

Example: How you can rationalize the issue away

  • This organisation is different
  • They also do a lot of good
  • They mean well
  • Surely they will improve when I explain it to them
  • They show signs of learning and improvement (yet they still deflect your feedback)

A healthy alternative

When giving feedback, we have discussed the options taking responsibility and holding responsible. As you can see below, both options have their strenghts and weaknesses. Skillful action involves choosing wisely beween these two.

Take Responsibility:
Reflect on yourself
Hold responsible:
Reflect on organisation
Personal growth Organisational growth
You can enjoy or learn from every experience You have a sense of right and wrong and uphold strong boundaries
Deeper insight in yourself Take effective action to improve the world
Reveals and cuts habitual tendencies Reinforces habitual tendencies
Limits effective action in favor of self-reflection Limits self-reflection in favor of effective action

We can choose how to handle feedback for both postive feedback and negative feedback. This generates several strategies to deal with feedback. We already discussed the Guru strategy, which takes all the credit (positive feedback), but none of the blame (negative feedback);

The Rescuer takes none of the credits (positive feedback), but all of the blame (negative feedback). Often a new facilitator who is gaining confidence, the Rescuer is quick to blame himself and eager to praise others. Feeling responsible for everybody, the Rescuer attracts participants unwilling to take responsibility for themselves and are eager to complain.

The Coach gives both credits and blame to the participant. He tells you you did great (positive feedback) and asks how you can improve (negative feedback).

Finally, we have the Learner, who takes both credits (positive feedback) and blame (negative feedback). You learned because of my excellent teaching, now how can I improve?

Who gets the credit?
(Positive Feedback)
Who takes the blame?
(Negative Feedback)
The Guru Our teaching is great (organisation), but you have issues (participant)
The Rescuer You did great (participant), but we made mistakes (organisation)
The Coach You did great (participant), and what can you do to improve? (participant)
The Learner Our teaching is great (organisation), and what can we improve? (organisation)

To facilitate powerful growth of both organisation and participant, I propose using the following strategies:

The Coach during the event: Participants take full responsibility and all feedback is deflected back to the participants. This facilitates deep insights.

The Learner outside the event: The organisation is held responsible for the event. Where possible, feedback is used for continuous improvement. In other cases, the organisation searches for a satisfying resolution for the participant and refrains from deflecting feedback back to the participant.