The Crime of the Century: Stealing Responsibility

A troubling trend evolving in far too many segments of society demonstrates the growing absence of personal accountability in the many settings we know. Ranging from personal health and wellness choices we make, managing the alcohol we drink and the social issues/social-media commentaries we freely offer, to how we perform our jobs and even our personal relationships—many people seem to be rapidly ascending to a collective philosophy that any outcome other than what we and they wanted is the result—or fault—of someone or something else.

Of course, we are not looking to blame nor punish with accountability.  This assessment of mine is borne from the observation that we choose to allow those who abdicate their place in a given process to not be held accountable.  And as we do, we are literally stealing responsibility from those who should be sufficiently respected and expected to accept failure, consequence, disappointment and the necessary ability to be motivated to increase and expand their efforts and pursue something greater and more intrinsically rewarding.

In any scenario in which someone has an interest or objective to pursue, that opportunity has three basic ingredients.  They include:

  • Authority.  Every person has some relative standing to act toward a goal.  Sometimes, like at work, these tasks may be assigned, but for the time being, let’s focus on the fact that they are smaller items that are part of the job we signed up for.  Let’s also remember that these tasks and projects typically help pave a path to advancement.
  • Accountability.  Every person in every scenario also has some expectation; a standard or measure by which they will be assessed based upon their effort, strategies, time management and other skills.  Also part of the accountability is that someone else will be in a position to make this assessment.  It could be a supervisor, a life partner, a coach, a friend, your child or someone else.  But rest assured—the assessors are out there.
  • Responsibility.  This is the slippery slope.  Our responsibility in any assignment, job, task, or role is one in which we must be able to accept setbacks, failures and shortcomings in addition to the accolades that come with measured success.  When we allow others to take our responsibility from us—or when we literally steal that responsibility from those who should retain it—we compromise our standing greatly.

Exactly how do we steal responsibility from someone else?  Typically, this comes in the form of arriving upon a scenario in which someone failed to accomplish a communicated assignment or duty.  As that person is being held accountable by a colleague or supervisor, someone else may intercede and suggest that it wasn’t that person’s fault because, “…they were depending on someone/something else.”

By doing this, the person who is attempting to support a colleague is actually undermining that person instead.  By coming to the defense of the individual, the theft of responsibility of the employee begins.  That employee in turn has but three choices to react:  They can immediately agree with the assertion that their failure was really the failure of someone else or another function they were depending upon; they can quietly allow the discussion to influence his/her environment, thus relieving them of any contribution of the scenario; or they can thank the well-intended colleague trying to come to their defense and simply state that the failure was indeed their own, and that they are going straight to work to overcome it.

Unfortunately, that last scenario is not the norm…unless we cultivate it.  As leaders, we must foster and consistently model both accountability and preventing the theft of responsibility.  We must distinguish blame, a reactive act which seeks only to assign fault but no opportunity for those being ‘punished’ to learn and succeed; and accountability, a proactive process and an essential component of responsibility that seeks to learn, develop and enhance our skills for challenges in the future.

Organizations grow and thrive when held accountable, but die when they settle on blaming something or someone else.  And as leaders, we owe it to our families, friends, colleagues and communities to hold ourselves accountable by preserving the standards we promised.

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