Step up to the plate. Take charge. Make it happen. Do something.  Speak up.  You’ve heard these admonitions and probably many others. But it’s always easier said than done.

Whether you’re concerned about the state of the world, the nation, your neighborhood, or your organization, you probably know the feeling. You’ve found a problem and know a change is needed. At first you may blame others for the issue. Then you start wondering if there’s something you personally can do. And then you stop in your tracks. Is it worth the effort? What will people think of me? What if I fail?

John Izzo, PhD, decided to write Stepping Up after he saw how one cheerful two-year old was able to significantly upgrade the mood of at least five rows of passengers during what started out as a very grumpy flight. He said he realized from that example that most of us have tremendous power to influence “about five rows” around us. Yet we often we spend most of our time thinking and talking about what someone else should do to improve things.

His argument is simple:  even large-scale problems could be solved if more people tried to make a difference. But first we each have to accept our personal power to change things. “We each have to choose to do what we can do,” he writes.

“Responsibility changes everything,” says Izzo. “The moment we decide that we are the ones who are capable of and responsible for changing things everything shifts.”

But there are downsides, of course. Assuming responsibility – especially for something we believe isn’t our fault – doesn’t seem fair.

Or we may feel we’re not cut out to be change-agents. In fact, research suggests it may be naturally easier for some of us to take charge than others, due to our personality and experiences.

Some people naturally believe they can (or can’t) control events that affect them, which social psychologists call “locus of control.” We have an internal locus of control if we believe we have power over how we react to things. On the other hand, we have an external locus of control if we think of ourselves mostly as victims, feeling that life “mostly is done to us rather than through us,” notes Izzo.

Imagine an organization or society – or your own life – filled with initiators, people with a strong internal locus of control. They’d be less likely to blame others and tend instead to look inside themselves for answers. They’d take the initiative to solve problems.

Jean Twenge, a researcher at San Diego State University, uncovered a troubling trend. He found that from 1960 to 2002, average scores of “locus of control” shifted so much that the average young person in 2002 was more externally focused than were 80 percent of young people in the 1960s. In other words, the study suggests that over a 42-year period, we went from being a “can do” nation to becoming a “victim nation.” Interestingly, during the same period, depression and anxiety rose to a parallel degree.

What happens if you tend to think more like a victim than as a take-charge person? Izzo says that neuroscientists have found that the sheer act of taking charge and doing something to solve a problem is likely to help us re-train our brains – creating new neurological connections – to make taking responsibility more natural for us.

It’s not easy. But Izzo offers a wide range of suggestions for how you can become more likely to step up. They include:

Izzo says the argument for speaking up is stronger than anything that may be holding you back. “One of the most important reasons to step up is that most of the time we regret not stepping up.” As author H. Jackson Brown, Jr., has pointed out, when you look back on your life, you’ll regret the things you didn’t do more than the ones you did.

“What might you step up to do right now in your life if you knew you might regret not doing so later on?” asks Izzo. “You have a choice; learn how.”


Learn more: Stepping Up: How Taking Responsibility Changes Everything, by John Izzo, Ph.D.,  Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2012. 

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