We all have a hard time accepting tough feedback. We all want to be seen for our best qualities, and we want to defend, explain and justify our weaknesses. When avoiding accountability, we typically defend, deny, rationalize, blame—anything and everything to avoid responsibility.

Given that these reactions are so common, how do we change and begin taking more accountability? In our work with clients, we invite them to ask themselves one simple question to cut through all the layers of image management: ‘What’s my part in this?’ This question, implemented at scale, supports the development of growth-mindset, psychologically-safe organisational cultures.

We deny accountability as a fast-brain reflex to protect ourselves from experiencing painful feelings, or ‘distress’. As we habitualise denial, defensiveness and blame as a life strategy for dealing with emotional pain, we increase our level of distress intolerance.

Asking ‘What’s my part in this?’ is a critical beginning to overcoming our disownership reflex. It’s useful to know that when we ask it, our emotional discomfort will increase. Rather than worrying that something’s wrong because we feel worse, we can lean into the discomfort and know that we’re growing. ‘What’s my part in this?’ shifts our focus away from what everyone else around us is doing wrong and onto our own behaviour. It marks the beginning of growth.

Tracy Furey, Head of Global Communications Oncology at Novartis, admitted to me how not being willing to ask this question created a lot of misery for her. ‘Prior to Novartis,’ she recounted, ‘I spent three years at my former employer feeling bitter and blaming everyone else for not getting the recognition, trust and support I thought I deserved. I withdrew into myself and was really lost. I behaved passive-aggressively towards people, particularly my family. It took me that long to recognise how much of my unhappiness was my responsibility because of how I reacted to the situation.

‘It was a terrible period of my life. And when I look back on it, I have so much regret because had I looked at myself and taken responsibility for bettering my situation, I could have gotten through it without the level of stress, anxiety and depression I went through. It didn’t have to be that way.

‘I held onto so many unresolved feelings. One time I was talking with a friend about it, and I had a moment of insight when I realised that everything coming out of my mouth was blaming others. I became disgusted with myself. That was the moment when I said, “It was you the whole time.” I just owned it.

‘Although that was difficult to face, it freed me to know it was my fault. It gave me the consciousness and power to look at my behaviour more objectively and to avoid my misguided behaviours in the future. Without that ownership, I never could have grown.’

Tracy’s experience is common. Blaming others is an unconscious pain management process. We blame others to feel okay about ourselves, but ironically we are actually poisoning ourselves.

It’s typical for leaders to lack the self-awareness to answer the accountability question for themselves. They tell us, ‘I’m genuinely curious to see my part in this. But I just don’t know what it is, so I’ll ask my team members.’

These leaders often have a history of denial, blame and even punishment of those brave enough to give them critical feedback. This means there is no psychological safety, and team members have no incentive to be honest. So it’s not unusual that when these leaders ask their team to hold them accountable and help them grow, their team responds with image-management platitudes. ‘No really, you’re doing great.’

This is why it’s so important for leaders to work on their self-awareness and to the best of their ability develop the insight and clarity to at least partially arrive at their own answers to ‘What’s my part in this?’ This enables them to come to their team with an already vulnerable insight by sharing and owning their shadow in front of the team. This does wonders for psychological safety and the possibilities for an honest team environment.

But don’t expect instant results. If your team has mostly defensive, denial-based experiences with you, one single vulnerable experience is not going to be enough. You will need to be patient and keep doing the ownership work. It will change in time.