Blame or responsibility: Knowing the difference can change your business

ActionWarren Buffet, perhaps the most successful investor in the world, got it wrong once, and some of his followers lost money by taking his advice. When he apologised to investors, a number commentators lauded his action, saying he was taking “responsibility” for his actions.

I disagree. While Buffet’s apology was a noble and honourable gesture it did not constitute taking responsibility. He was taking the blame.

What’s the difference between taking the blame and taking responsibility? My definition is quite clear. The parts of the word hold the answer: it is the ability to respond, whether it be to a problem, challenge, trend or future opportunity.

The evidence of responsibility is action. If someone claims they are taking responsibility, they are taking or planning action. The conversation is about action – they are focused on what action to take today that will make the future better. Responsibility is a forward looking, action-oriented concept.

Taking the blame – I’m sorry, it’s my fault – is not taking responsibility. In fact blaming oneself can be the ‘soft option’ and often substitutes for action and, in so doing, stifles taking responsibility.


Why the difference matters

Laying blame and taking responsibility are diametrically opposed; where one is, the other won’t stay long. Yet many managers act as if they are interchangeable. This creates problems for leaders; serious problems, when there are issues of bullying, for example. And the business can suffer too, due to the lack of an action orientation.

Blaming others has nothing to do with action and nor is it about the future. It is about the ego and making people feel guilty about a past event. Blame often leads to conversations of accusation, justification, excuses and back-side-protecting, not action!


What you say can change what they do

If this is happening in your organisation, and you want it to change, it starts with your conversations, as a leader (irrespective of your job title). Move the conversations away from blame toward action.

This means not only avoiding conversations where one blames another but also where people blame themselves – “it’s my fault”. Neither conversation is constructive. I cut people off when they move into the blame space by asking a very simple question: what are you going to do now to address the situation? This moves the conversation into a far more positive and productive space.

Focus your conversation on:

  • The actions needed to fix the current problem.
  • The actions needed to make sure the problem can never happen again.

Until both these are dealt with the problem has not been solved and responsibility is not complete.

If we have to delve into the past to be able to address the problem (and you will, in most cases) it can be easy to slip into a blame mentality. Avoid this by focusing on process – the process that created the problem. Don’t get drawn into the personalities.

It matters less what words you use, it’s the way it is said that counts. If you find yourself (metaphorically) wagging your finger at someone and saying, “you need to take responsibility for this” then it will be interpreted as blame. One of the most common blame statements I hear comes out of the USA – it happened on your watch.


Ability is important, too

So far, I have concentrated on the word ‘response’; but what about the word ‘ability’? Do your people have the ability to respond as the business needs. If not, what are you doing about developing their ability to respond?

If blame and responsibility are mutually exclusive approaches, which is it to be for you?

About the author: Warwick Cavell, an Alliance Advisor with ATL Network,  is a thought leader in communicating for results and strategy implementation. For over 25 years, he has helped leaders improve business performance by changing the way people communicate and work to solve problems – both internally and with their clients. He is a highly respected facilitator, coach, speaker and trainer, and author of regular blogs.