Responsibility vs Fault

I recently commented on a LinkedIn article here about the need for change to accompany a genuine apology. Much of the commentary that followed talked quite accurately about why people are often reluctant —or even unwilling—to apologize to someone else for either failing to do what was expected or having done it incorrectly.

Much of that unwillingness, I believe, comes from the oft-encountered confusion between taking responsibility and being at fault. Both words get associated with "blame" and it is both inaccurate and harmful to allow that confusion to thrive.

Responsibility is being accountable to others for things that are within your control.

Fault is being the cause of the failure in question.

Here are some examples:

  • A shipment to a customer arrives 3 days late because the carrier had a disruption in their scheduling system. The delay is the carrier’s fault, but it's your responsibility to fix the customer's dissatisfaction over the delay.
  • You arrive at a meeting without the needed materials because your colleague forgot to tell you about them. The fault lies with your colleague for not telling you, but the responsibility is yours to ensure you were well prepared before you got to the meeting.
  • A sale you've been working on for months was scheduled to close last week. But it didn't, because the contract signer was away on vacation. It's not your fault that she went on vacation, but it was your responsibility to ensure the contract got signed when you promised it.
  • One of your channel partners calls because their phone number is incorrect on your website and he thinks they've lost substantial revenue opportunities because of the error. It's your responsibility to calm them down and seek a solution, even though it was either the partner’s erroneous submission or the webmaster's fault that the data wasn't posted correctly.

Much of the comingling of these words is due to the culture of blame that seems to pervade too much of business today. This culture says if you can tell someone who's to blame, you redirect their criticism and anger towards that individual or group. Anyone who’s ever been on the phone with a customer service rep about a problem with your reservation, account activity, order status or the like and has heard a phrase, “It’s not my fault…” proves this point clear.  While this deflection technique might make someone feel that if they're not to blame, they'll face less scrutiny. In actuality, though, the inverse is more often true, because in the midst of an issue, most people don’t care about who’s to blame as much as they care about how to solve the problem.

Taking responsibility allows you to seize control and empower yourself within that situation. It's an inward look at how you can remedy whatever problem is before you. It eschews the need to blame, because blame serves only two functions: first, to assuage guilt by pointing the finger at someone else; and second, to help you determine where a process breaks down. And, as noted above, if you're in the midst of dealing with a stressful situation, you're probably not too worried about doing root-cause analysis of a process breakdown.

Fault-finders and blamers always look externally for the problem, whereas responsibility takers always examine the problem with the questions like:

  • How can I fix this?
  • What do I need to do differently or better next time?
  • How can I help prevent this from happening again?

These questions and those like them give a responsibility taker all the power to change their situation and the outcomes they can achieve. Those who only point fingers in blame or focus only on finding fault, cede all control and power to those at whom they point their fingers. In other words, by pointing the finger and saying "It's their fault... they're to blame for this problem," they can feel comfortable sitting back and taking no action, because they had nothing to do with it. This attitude is a cancer in business, in government, in communities and in relationships.

Responsibility vs Fault-Finding and Blaming

Part of what I do with my clients is help them hire and promote their salespeople and sales leaders. Testing each individual’s degree of taking responsibility is a key aspect of that, because a salesperson who cannot (or will not) take responsibility for their losses or delays in revenue are very likely to fail whenever the going gets tough. Those who blame every loss on the product, or the competition or their colleagues add little value to a sales team and sow discord and infighting within an organization.

Regardless of your role, and whether you think of business or your own personal relationships, examine how you tend to see and approach problems that arise.  Determine whether you tend to take responsibility or point the finger at who should be blamed.  In each circumstance, look for things that you can control and take responsibility for those. It will help you gain respect from others and solve problems faster.

Published by
Steve Maul
April 30, 2019
January 7, 2022