On my first day of high school, I found myself in the history class of Mr. Robert Owen. Like many of my peers, the start of high school for me was a mix of insecurity, anxiety, and excitement.
I must have been a little too excited, because 10 minutes into class I found myself in the hall with Mr. Owen’s finger in my face. His question to me was simple, “do you want to stay in this class?” Mr. Owen made it clear to me that if I wanted to remain welcome in his class, I would have to change my behavior. The behavior that landed me in the hall this time would next time result in an entirely different outcome.
I have no idea why, but at the age of 15 I chose not to exhibit the self-serving bias and blame Mr. Owen for the consequences of my poor behavioral choice. It was not Mr. Owen’s fault that I almost got my self-absorbed ass kicked out of his class – it was mine. I understand now that Mr. Owen’s confrontation of my disruptive behavior was an act of service to me and the rest of his students. Never again would my behavior in that class obstruct Mr. Owen from performing the work he loved and had mastered. I took another history class from Mr. Owen the following year; he was easily my favorite high school teacher.
I don’t remember much from high school, but I will never forget Mr. Owen’s stern look and finger in my face that first day. I will always love him for teaching me the value of having the courage to stand up for your professional dignity and to confront those whose relentless pursuit of expedience erodes reasonable standards of responsible conduct and civility.
We really can do whatever we want to do; however, there really is an outcome for every choice we make. We are all individually and corporately path dependent. Leaders do their people a disservice by not clearly identifying the behavioral choices that lead to both growth and demise, then consistently holding accountable everyone that shirks self-accountability.
The people that benefit the most from clear behavioral norms are those that need them the least. The people that live and work above the code are also the ones most likely to assume full responsibility for their self-engagement at work. The transaction cost of policy enforcement represents an irresponsibility tax trustworthy organizational citizens pay for social loafers.
Mr. Owen paid that irresponsibility tax on my behalf when I was young. I am forever grateful.
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