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Recognizing the Distinction Between Blame and Responsibility
“A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.” ~John Burroughs
Do you believe that in a perfect world everything would go right every time? At the beginning that sounds pretty nice, especially if it is a radical change from your present circumstances. In our fantasies, things work out, we get the “yes”, and events go exactly as we planned. The problem is that certainty can get boring, so we tinker, we try new things, and we experiment. That’s when it happens:
Sometimes things go wrong.
What you do next is the thing that makes all the difference. Is it your common response to cast about for who messed up? That might seem practical: after all, until you know who made the mistake, you can’t fix it. Do you look for what went wrong? Not just people are involved; there are things and there are processes. Perhaps one of them is faulty. Who was in charge anyway? Maybe it was a failure of leadership or instruction or training—after all, the buck has to stop somewhere.
Before we head down these roads, we need to check one thing: What is our intent in this inquiry? Are we looking for someone to pin it on? Are we looking for something to “fix”? Are we looking for a leader to denounce?
These are the common motivators. In politics, business, and the social scene, a favorite pastime is finding fault. News television is full of talking heads who are assigning blame everywhere and rallying to replace those at fault. Unfortunately, their replacements become the next targets and the cycle continues.
Only a few are strong enough to accept blame and take responsibility when something goes south. Only a subset of those strong individuals manages to hang on to face their next scrutiny. but there are such persons and we can model ourselves after them. What do they do differently than those who run from the blame?
Before we go further, we need to get some definitions straight. What is blame, what is fault, and what is responsibility?
- To be responsible is to be answerable or accountable. It means that we will be measured.
- To be at fault is to be responsible for a failure or worse, a wrongful act.
- Finally, to blame is not just to hold responsible but to find fault with.
How to Approach Responsibility
There are ways to approach responsibility that work and ways that don’t. Let’s start with the latter. When our focus is on blame, it is all about finding someone to get. It turns focus away from what went wrong and how to keep it from going wrong again. It is judgmental and vindictive.
Blame is often used to divert attention away from ourselves. After all, we don’t want the blame—who ever wants to be “at fault”? But the blame game shows a lack of understanding of what responsibility fundamentally is. Responsibility cannot be assigned after the fact even though many attempt to do so. Responsibility was always present, even if it was not acknowledged. When you start to realize this, you stop blaming others. You begin focusing on your own role, whether in action or in abdication.
This is a moment of clarity but some folks lose it immediately by making one critical error: they replace blaming others with blaming themselves. This turns into self-recrimination, self-judgment and self-hatred. Blaming yourself is not the same thing as taking responsibility: In fact, it is a way to avoid taking responsibility.
The focus of blame is to find fault. Its objective is judgmental to its core. Finding yourself guilty is not going to change anything, fix anything or improve anything. Taking responsibility, on the other hand, has a superior objective—it is all about accountability. It is an assignment, not a verdict. When something is assigned to us, we take care to manage it, protect it, and make it successful, so in circumstances where many go from blame to self-blame, can you see the superior path of focusing on assignment? Whatever happened is now a provider of new and useful information, rather than a distraction from your objectives like blame can be.
There is one other turn of a phrase we must be wary of. That phrase is “to hold responsible”. Yes, it has “responsible” in it, but don’t be fooled: the active word is “hold”. It’s just a stand-in for finding fault. Remember, responsibility just is, and it was, but it cannot be assigned after the fact. A better phrase to embrace is “to accept responsibility”. It is best if you do it in advance. It is painful if you have to do it after the fact but keep in mind that your acceptance didn’t bring your responsibility into existence, it was already present.
If responsibility is sounding like a serious matter, it is, but it isn’t a circus like blame and faultfinding. Take responsibility mindfully and stay away from blame. If you do, you will find that things calm down and get clearer. It feels better to be responsible than to merely endure the blame.
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