Clicky

Friday, April 13, 2020

Whose fault is it anyway?

Making yourself responsible for what you cannot control makes for a miserable life.

Are you accountable for your actions—or responsible for the results? Can you be held responsible for making something happen—or only for the way that you try? Get the answer wrong and you’re setting yourself up for a good deal of unnecessary stress and anxiety. Sadly, Hamburger Managers habitually confuse accountability with responsibility, especially when it comes to pressuring their people to serve up unrealistic targets. It sounds tough and practical to say that winning is all that matters, but it’s still nonsense. No one can control events or outcomes, not even today’s ultra-macho managers. Yet many are half-killing themselves by trying.
Yesterday, I wrote about the negative role played by an overdeveloped ego. Now I want to consider a related issue. Many organizations and executives treat accountability and responsibility as the same. More demand specific results and state that someone or other is being held responsible for getting them. By doing so, they’re causing stress and confusion on a large scale. Keeping the meaning of these common terms clear is essential for proper leadership; as is understanding what someone should rationally be held accountable for and what they certainly should not.

If you’re accountable for something, it means that you are the person who is liable to be called to account for progress, success, or failure: to “give an account” explaining what happened, what you did in response, and why. It doesn’t mean that you need to do everything associated with that project yourself. Nor that success or failure ultimately depends on your actions. Most of what happens in the world does so by chance, or due to such a complex tangle of causes and related effects that it is impossible to determine the exact reason (if there was one). To be accountable means that you have to answer for your actions (or lack of them). It does not mean that you should be blamed for every failure or congratulated for every success. Most have nothing to do with you. Whatever you did had no effect on them.

This is tough for many people to accept. As a species, humans like simple, clear causes that produce obvious effects. Our brains are programmed to try to find them. The human sub-species that works in the media is especially prone to inventing simple reasons for every event. You need only listen to the pundits discussing the day’s trading on Wall Street to hear an impossibly complex set of global financial interactions reduced to some bland statement that trading was up or down due to something simple, like a speech, one set of figures, or “nervous investors.”

To be responsible for something is generally understood to imply that you—and whatever you did or left undone—were the direct cause of whatever happened. It’s all down to you to control people and events to bring about the desired result.

Thinking like this is giving yourself ludicrous airs, but the ego loves it. It puts you right at the center of events. It makes you important, critical, essential to success. Egotistical Hamburger Managers typically make this kind of claim, pointing to positive outcomes and saying: “I did that.” But if you’re the cause of the good things, you have to be the cause of the bad ones too. Now that’s not so nice. Of course, people are quick to attribute failures and messes to others, to unexpected events, and to simple chance. All true. But if the failures are down to chance most of the time, won’t the successes be due to the same random combination of events?

Smith is responsible. Blame Smith. Quick, clean, simple. And wrong, in the vast majority of cases.

Treating other people as responsible is also tempting because it sounds tough and makes life simple. If Smith is responsible for sales and sales fall, fire Smith. It’s his or her fault. There’s no wasting time trying to find out what went wrong. No potentially embarrassing inquiry that might suggest others above Smith had some part to play in the failure. Smith is responsible. Blame Smith. Quick, clean, simple. And wrong, in the vast majority of cases.

You can see this attitude all around us. The corporation is in trouble? Fire the CEO (with an enormous golden parachute) and hire a new, higher profile one (with a huge signing-on bonus.) And if things get no better afterwards? Fire the new CEO—then repeat as required.

Does anyone ever reckon up the cost of these repeated restructurings? Or ask why so few of them appear to work? These people may have been accountable for some or all of the business, but they are rarely (if ever) personally responsible for what happened. Firing them is a purely emotional response: a wish to see someone suffer (though the golden parachutes make it the kind of suffering most of us would love to volunteer for!). It has no logic to it. What’s needed is to take the time to find out, if possible, what the real problems are and correct those.

If this was only about fat cat executives, most of us would find it tough to care. Sadly, it applies at all levels. Bosses hold subordinates responsible (not just accountable) for all kinds of events outside anyone’s capacity to influence. Worse still, people hold themselves responsible: accepting the blame for past failures and tormenting themselves with guilt and regrets.

I wince when I read nonsense like the idea that each of us is somehow responsible for what happens in our lives, probably through some magical psychic transference. It’s total rubbish. We are accountable for our actions—always—but we cannot affect large parts of what happens in our lives and careers in any way. All we can do is react to events as sensibly as we can.

It’s time to leave behind this childish, simplistic view of cause and effect that owes more to superstition, revenge, and primitive religiosity than any logic.

It’s time to drop the silly, Hamburger Management nonsense that claims people must take responsibility for events that are wholly, or even partly, outside their control; time to leave behind this childish, simplistic view of cause and effect that owes more to superstition, revenge, and primitive religiosity than any logic. Superstition believes that unrelated events effect one another (the stars and events on earth). Lynching someone because bad things happened is the response of a primitive society. And there’s no evidence to suggest that the gods, let alone a supposedly loving God, spend their time messing up peoples’ lives as punishment for various sins.

By all means let us hold those in positions of power accountable for what they do—sensible, stupid, or corrupt—but forget feeding their egos (and our desire to hit back) by pretending that they are personally responsible for every outcome. Luck plays a huge part in the career of every successful person. Few executives, even CEOs, have much personal power to do more that torment their subordinates.

Stand back, slow down, and accept that most of life’s problems will take careful exploration to understand properly. Action without understanding is foolish. But then, Hamburger Management is the most foolish approach of all.



Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon
Sign up for our Email Newsletter




Labels: , ,

Add to Technorati Favorites Stumble Upon Toolbar

7 Comments:

Herman Najoli said...

There's been a big firing in the news this week - a case where the "firee" was held accountable for his comments. Whose fault was it in this case?

1:21 AM  
Shannon said...

One of the best comparisons of accountability and responsibility I've read. I wish I could distribute this to all the managers in my organization.

5:05 AM  
Stephen said...

While it's main focus is on leadership, this post also brings to mind other half-baked concepts that people are being sold today - like "attracting wealth."

You said: "I wince when I read nonsense like the idea that each of us is somehow responsible for what happens in our lives, probably through some magical psychic transference." I couldn't agree more.

7:20 AM  
Christopher Richards said...

You are right, of course, that slowing down with a sense of care and observation is the way to go. But that word responsible has another meaning, at least for me. The word has nothing to do with blame and recrimination. It is the ability to respond. Or perhaps in the corporate setting, it is the ability to respond appropriately. Not addressing an untenable situation is a form of insanity. But would a sane person do well in an insane environment? Probably not.

Explaining complexity in simple terms is an art. But ignoring facets of a complex issue in order to make is intelligible to the rushed, and harried mind does no one any good. I am sure we have all seen those that demand answers without fully understanding the question. Maybe philosophy should be taught in business school.

Christopher
SlowDownNow.org

7:44 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

We are all responsible for our actions, Herman, and that includes what we say.

Don Imus said what he did of his own free will. What I am pointing to is where people are treated as responsible for outcomes that they cannot control, whatever they do.

Here's an example. Smith is held responsible for hitting a specific sales figure. But the exact outcome is outside his control. Maybe there is a downturn in the economy; or the products he has to sell are poor quality; or a competitor brings out a superior model.

All Smith can be held responsible for is his own efforts—not the outcome.

Thanks for your comment. Keep reading, my friend.

8:11 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comments, Shannon and Stephen. I'm glad that you liked the post.

Keep reading, my friends.

8:14 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

I am sure that teaching philosophy in business school would be a great idea, Christopher. High school would be even better. I am appalled at the poor grasp of simple logic that even highly-educated people often show; to say nothing of the sentimental overvaluing of purely emotional responses.

Yes, the silly obsession with haste is one of the causes. I have posted articles here in the past pointing out that instant responses so often lead to mistakes, and pleading for more people to slow down and think first.

Thanks for your comment. Keep reading, my friend.

8:20 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a  Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.