Succeed at managing your circumstances

This article is the result of a post I read in 'The Writer’s Cooperative' on Medium titled ‘What Disney’s Inside Out tells us about locus of control’ by Erica Rothman.

There are times when we feel we are the victims of circumstance and are helpless, unable to determine how we extricate ourselves from these situations. Everything looks bleak and hopeless, and there do not seem to be avenues or ‘paths of clarity’ that we need to choose and to proceed. Our emotions are at low ebb, it’s ‘doom and gloom’….and as a recourse we retreat, hug our ‘safety blankets’ and the familiar and hope the situation will pass and somehow we will weather the storm or at worst, resign ourselves to succumb.

This is true of both our personal and professional lives.

In my profession managing circumstances is of utmost importance as the consequences affect large numbers of people, have implications for the ‘brand’ and organisational resources. This is also an important personal consideration as my competence, credibility, integrity, and emotional wellbeing rests on this.

What I share are the lessons from 24+ years of experience learned through success, but mostly through mistakes, failure, and an incomplete understanding of the circumstances.

The context of ‘circumstances’ are complex, and we often see them as ‘obstacles’. Since the theme of this post is on managing and not on determining the context, underlying causes or details I have linked an informative and fun post here which contains relevant and thoughtful guidance on determining the causes of and the means of overcoming obstacles.

Let’s break down ‘circumstances’ into its component parts;

  1. The ‘circumstances’ themselves, within which we find ourselves in the moment and context specific, which may or may not change now or the near future. These are driven by past events which may be individual or contextual and by changes and trends which drive them into future scenarios.

  2. The first variable, ‘control’. Are you able to maintain and manage control over the circumstances? Or are they beyond your control and you are individually unable to manage or change them on your own.

  3. The second variable, ‘the ability to decide’. Do you have the ability and the power to make decisions within the current circumstances, or not?

  4. The ‘consequences’ or outcomes that result from actions within these variables of control and the ability to decide and their ‘sphere of influence'.

If we represent these ‘variables’ as a visual it would look like this:

There are four scenarios or ‘quadrants’, which we will call A, B, C, and D with titles I’ve made up. You probably can come up with more descriptive and colorful titles for them.

  1. Quadrant A: ‘I ‘ve got this…’ You are in ‘control’ of your circumstances, understand them and have the power to make ‘decisions’. Everything is well; you seem to be ‘on top of things’ and can manage your circumstances and determine the consequences or outcomes of your decisions to a significant extent. Within this you are both responsible and accountable for the outcomes and consequences.

  2. Quadrant B: ‘I’ve got your back…’ You are in control but the decision lies with someone else. This may be a board room setting where you are in control but decisions are made by voting, meetings where decision making is by consensus, ‘conflict of interest’ situations if you potentially stand to benefit or organisational policy. You might be in control but you cannot decide. Parenting is also a good example within this since you maintain control but would like your son or daughter to make the decision about certain issues or choices. You might be able to override the decision-making process and move yourself into Quadrant A but this would probably result in compromising agreements, rules, or guidelines. You might also be able to ‘influence’ the decision-making process by working with or convincing the decision makers on your point of view. In marketing, you may be in control of goods and services but the customer is the decision maker whom you try to influence through advertising and media. Here you are accountable for the consequences or outcome of the decision.

  3. Quadrant C: ‘I’ve got to see someone...”. You’ve made the decision but the circumstances are not within your control. You’ve decided to travel to China but you may need to get a visa, which is not within your control. You’ve decided that your son should drive and teach him to but whether he gets his license or not is up to the DMV. This is also an area where you might want an outcome by influencing individuals or agencies in control through convincing reasoning, advocacy, or campaigning for a cause. Or you work with someone who can influence the level of control. Within such a situation you are not accountable for the outcome or consequences unless you try to manipulate the ‘system’ of norms, rules, and regulations.

  4. Quadrant D:‘WTF?’ An asteroid is heading towards earth and unless you have Bruce Willis backed by Aerosmith, all is gone. Flippancy aside, this can be a very negative physical and emotional space. A sudden tragedy or a death in the family or of a loved one, living under a very repressive regime, a financial meltdown where your life savings just disappeared or the nosedive and crash of your ‘start up’. You feel helpless, despondent, alone in the world, and find yourself asking, “why me?”. Here the paradox is while you may not be accountable or responsible for consequences or outcomes, your position here could also result from not fully understanding (or being blind to) the circumstances and implications. This may also result from violating the agreements, commitments, rules and regulations within B and C or being inadequately self-aware or irresponsible within A.

Where does this leave us?

  1. Try as best able to understand be aware of the origin of the circumstances as well as the ‘drivers’ and trends or changes in context that can transform them into different scenarios. The four principle sources from where you get your information are: i. Secondary sources such as the media and the internet; ii. Your primary contacts, networks, and relationships, both personal and professional; iii. Trends and patterns in the external context that impact on your brand or industry; and, iv. From key informants who have authoritative and responsible knowledge.

  2. Within A be deliberate and thoughtful in making decisions and be aware of the outcomes and consequences, not only for yourself but for your immediate circle of relationships and contexts and for the broader sphere of your influence which may impact on your organisation, your work and the larger operating environment.

  3. Within B, respect and honor agreements, commitments and guidelines that have been established, very often with your participation. Also, ensure that when you delegate decision making that you also provide adequate authority. The danger here is ‘pay for play’ and relationships that are governed by patronage. A good example is the post-election drama in the US that’s playing itself out now.

  4. Within C, do not try to manipulate the system. If the system does not work for you try to understand why and address the causes. Your paperwork may not meet the requirements, your personal habits may have negatively influenced your effectiveness in ensuring that you have done your part and, follow the rules.

  5. Within D; this is a difficult one…if you are not responsible or accountable as to why you are in this position, seek solace and inspiration from those who have gone through the same experience. Build a constituency of the like-minded to help you move into A, B, or C. In times of grief you will find that you are not alone. Manage emotional burdens and stress by seeking positive contact and help from family, friends, your networks or a coach or mentor whom you trust. If it’s a larger cause that you want to address, join a movement or campaign to bring about change in the circumstances.

If you are here because of making the wrong call or have misjudged a situation, learn from it. If you are here because of your patterns of behavior or habits, try changing them.

This approach has helped me personally and professionally to manage myself and work while enhancing self-awareness, professionalism, emotional resilience and being looked up to as a coach and mentor. It has also helped reduce the emotional burden of managing relationships through objectively differentiating between challenges and issues and the self, including myself.

I hope you find this post useful.

January 5, 2017 Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Photograph: Cristian Newman,

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