The human condition involves making mistakes. The challenge we have both personally and organizationally is how we deal with those mistakes. That is where responsibility becomes the key to both personal and organizational growth and strength.
The dictionary definition of responsibility includes:
the quality or state of being responsible: as
a : moral, legal, or mental accountability
b : reliability, trustworthiness
However, when thinking of this important quality in terms of personal and organizational growth, I prefer to break the word into its component parts:
Response Ability=the Ability to Respond
On an individual level, being responsible means having the ability to respond to mistakes one makes by rectifying them when possible and apologizing if it is truly impossible to rectify them. Few of us do not have the ability to respond, though many of us choose not to respond when we make mistakes or fail in our responsibilities. Such failures inevitably lead to anger, disappointment and fractured personal relationships. Most certainly, responsibility cannot mean blaming others for one’s own mistakes and failures, or as depicted here taking the short-sighted approach that problems that you will need to confront are really someone else’s problems.
In my career as a civil rights attorney, mostly in the non-profit sector, when confronting serious governmental or organizational malfeasance, more often than not the wrongdoers rarely accept responsibility for their own actions, much less so the actions of their subordinates, over whom they theoretically have responsibility. Examples include:
- the Appleton principal who refuses to take responsibility for the abuse that one of his teachers inflicted on multiple children with disabilities over a number of years right under his nose.
- multiple school districts’ failure to take responsibility to comply with the reporting requirements of Wisconsin’s seclusion and restraint law; and
- the Department of Public Instruction’s failure to enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) obligations of private voucher schools.
The list, of course, can go on, but when engaging in systems change, one key aspect of achieving real change is to create responsible organizations and governments which have the ability to respond when mistake are made. The Ontario Human Rights Commission has an excellent description of organizational responsibility as part of its Policy and Guidelines on Discrimination Because of Family Status, a portion of which is worth quoting here:
There is an obligation to ensure that environments are free from discrimination and harassment. It is not acceptable from a human rights perspective to choose to remain unaware of the potential existence of discrimination or harassment, or to ignore or fail to act to address human rights matters, whether or not a complaint has been made.
This obligation can and should extend to both individuals and organizations, in a wide variety of settings. The next time you are seeking to find out who is responsible for a problem, ask:
Who is able to respond?
If the answer is nobody, or if you are tossed around the organization in a Kafka-esque manner, then you know that the organization has failed to organize itself in a manner in which it can effectively respond to problems which inevitably occur, and is in need of serious systemic change.