Blame is Captivity, Responsibility is Freedom

This week we will be exploring a theme: that business is both scientific and human, but that it has become far too much the former, and far too little the latter. We began it yesterday by pointing out Martin Luther King’s profound focus on relationship to others.

The title of this blogpost is a quote from Phil McGee, who writes his own intensely autobiographical blog, It’s one of his meatier nuggets, and I had occasion to use it last week.

I met with an acquaintance–Susan–who is in the middle of a large and complex initiative, putting together a consortium of independent players. The group is long on vision and expertise, but short on tactical how-to and make-it-happen ability. That’s where she comes in.

As we talked, she told me of her concerns about roles, timing and execution. We’d had this conversation before. She is probably about 90% right about it all, but has become frustrated with her inability to generate movement. "It’s like pushing on a string," she said, and she’s not wrong. Meanwhile, she was feeling unappreciated, unheard and unhappy.

What Problem Are We Trying to Solve?

But this time, as we talked, another level of the issue became clear to us both. No one was going to do what Susan was suggesting needed doing. No one, that is, except her. In fact, probably no one else could do it–only she had the skills and perspective to make it happen.

We reframed the question from "how to get others to do…" to why she shouldn’t do it herself. I asked her just that: what are you afraid of? She is honest and reasonably self-aware. She reflected just a moment and said, "I guess I’m afraid it might not work, and others would blame me."

"And?" I asked. She answered the question. "I guess there are no guarantees, and someone has to own the risk. And if others blame me–well, if I have involved them along the way, then I guess I can live with that. Blame would be their problem, I don’t need to own it." Case closed.

Blame and Freedom

Susan had been blaming others for the team’s inaction. That had deflected her attention from being responsible for her own contribution. Once she stopped blaming and took responsibility, she freed herself–from the fear of other-imposed guilt. In retrospect, Susan herself held the keys. She and only she could stop the cycle, and could do so just by assuming  her part in the whole drama.

Blame is captivity, responsibility is freedom. Susan freed herself, and she didn’t do it with processes or incentives, rules or regulations. She did it by identifying what she was and was not responsible for. That’s pretty personal stuff.  But as McGee says, most of business is just personal.

1 reply
  1. john
    john says:

    Charles what a great reminder. I was reading over the weekend the closing comments in my Wife’s O magazine. Oprah talks about how we make all sortsof comitments to others and we will work like heck to make it happen. When we make commitments to oursevles we often fail to keep them. Over time we train ourselves not to trust ourselves.

    Your point is similar in that when we always rely on others to gt it done, we lose confidence (or trust) in our ability to get it done.

    I enjoy your insight,




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