Owning a business requires taking responsibility for a variety of things, some of which you can’t directly control. For example, you’re responsible for making good on your promises to customers, but you’re also responsible for the mistakes and failures of your team. In this sense, responsibility doesn’t equate to blame.
Blame is the model of responsibility we’re used to, but you can be responsible for something you didn’t cause. For example, you didn’t cause the oceans to become polluted, but you can take responsibility for the mess by volunteering your time to clean it up.
Responsibility is the duty to deal with or respond to a situation, regardless of who caused it. That situation might be a controversy or conflict, or it could be an everyday situation. For example, if you start an LLC, you’re responsible for filing for an EIN number from the Federal government. If you’re the CEO of a company accused of insider trading, you’re responsible for looking into and publicly responding to the allegations.
You don’t always get to choose your responsibilities
Simply by doing business, you become legally responsible for a host of situations you can and can’t control. For example, according to Truitt Law Offices, a mechanic can be held responsible for a motorcycle accident if they failed to align a tire correctly, didn’t notice a tire needed to be replaced, or didn’t recognize an engine or brake problem.
If a car or motorcycle is found to be undrivable, most mechanics will refuse to allow the customer to drive it away and will only release the keys to a tow truck. For instance, if the car is missing the brake fluid reservoir, the brakes won’t work, making the car unsafe to drive. If a mechanic releases the car to be driven, they can be held liable for damages if anyone driving that car causes an accident.
You can also be held legally responsible if a customer slips and falls on the premises of your business, even if it’s not technically your fault. For example, say a gopher dug a hole in the grass the night before without your knowledge. If a customer steps in that hole and twists their ankle, they can probably hold you responsible for their medical bills.
Without the concept of blame, responsibility is easier to embrace
If you’ve been trying to get employees to step up to a higher role but they don’t seem willing, they’re probably scared. People shrink away from taking on responsibilities because being accountable for important decisions makes them uncomfortable. Usually, they’re afraid of making the wrong decision and being blamed.
By removing blame from how you view responsibility, it becomes easier to embrace. When you define responsibility as the ability to respond, mistakes are easier to acknowledge. However, apologizing for damages might be difficult because we naturally have an aversion to apologizing for something we didn’t do. In this context, it’s important to reframe the act of apologizing. When a person in a position of authority apologizes for a situation, they’re not admitting personal guilt. They’re extending an acknowledgment and understanding to those who were hurt.
For example, in a corporate setting, the head of each department is responsible for everything that happens within their department. When an employee is caught stealing, the head of that department must deal with the situation and apologize for any damages. In this context, the apology acknowledges what happened and how it affected other people, but isn’t an attempt at soliciting personal forgiveness.
Blame and credit are two sides of the same coin
A common phrase used in business is, “who’s responsible for this mistake?” Another one is, “who’s responsible for this genius idea?” Both phrases are an attempt to credit someone with causing something. We call negative credit blame, but it’s the same thing. It’s also not the whole story about responsibility.
Responsibility drives solution
At its core, responsibility is what leaders embrace when they want to keep projects and teams moving forward with solutions, rather than getting bogged down in finger pointing. That doesn’t mean individuals responsible for acts of dishonesty aren’t properly punished. It means leaders willing to take responsibility for resolving situations that occur beyond their control are committed to the outcome of their projects; something not possible with a low-level view of responsibility.