The Paradox of Responsibility


My wife and I were going for a walk the other day and noticed that there was a lot of trash along the sidewalk and in the undergrowth. This is also the same path that a lot of teenagers use to walk to and from high school. My first thought was, “What a bunch of irresponsible kids that can’t hang onto their trash until they get home.” Honestly, it was probably my second and third thought as well. Eventually i got to thinking, “Does it make me irresponsible if I see trash that I know should be picked up but I don’t do it, even if it isn’t mine?”

That thought obviously disturbed me more than the first one, so I thought I should explore what it really means to be responsible and why it’s important. Responsibility and accountability are terms that are kicked around a lot, but I’m not sure we really understand what we are talking about or when it should be meaningful. I certainly want other people to be responsible; it’s easy to take a moral high ground and point out how their irresponsibility is ruining their lives and my own. But I am not so happy about it when other people are holding me responsible. What are we accountable for anyway?

I went home to ask Google what it thinks about responsibility, but since I wanted to get responsible answers I checked Google’s smarter sibling, Google Scholar. I found this study that made a fascinating distinction between responsibility and accountability and how they are different speakers within the same conversation. These two form a complex relationship that can radically change how to get the most out of yourself and others.

Think about it this way - Responsibility is Empowering people to create change, while Accountability describes Constraints through which it is to be accomplished. And the sweet spot is having clarity on both.


That definition led me to think about what happens if you have too much of one or the other. If you lean too far towards Empowerment or Constraint then you have an imbalanced stance that leads to frustration for both the person being held accountable and the people providing the responsibility. And either side is all to easy to fall into.

Too much empowerment without many restraints can leave a person “spoiled,” and that doesn’t apply just to entitled kids. You’ve probably been around adults who don’t feel like the rules apply to them (I’m being elbowed by my wife).

On the other side, too much constraint and very little empowerment applies to people are “micromanaged.” They may be held accountable for tasks but hold very little power to do it their own way.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

In the book Practical Wisdom, Barry Schwartz describes a scenario in which people who held authority in the military took responsibility - empowerment - away from those at the ground level by giving them requirements - constraints - on how to train the troops. It was certainly more efficient, and provided uniformity and standardization. But efficiency shouldn’t be the top priority - readiness for battle is the goal. By taking away empowerment, it decreased the level of experience and leadership. The troops on the ground were not able to grow, learn, and make adjustments.

“Too many rules and requirements ‘removes all discretion’ and stifles the development of flexible officers, resulting in ‘reactive instead of proactive thought, compliance instead of creativity, and adherence instead of audacity… The army is creating cooks, leaders who are ‘quite adept at carrying out a recipe,’ rather than chefs who can ‘look at the ingredients available to them and create a meal.’” (p. 159)

I can certainly understand the impulse to dictate how things should be run. If I’ve been in that situation before and I feel like I was successful, why wouldn’t I want to provide the same path to success for others?

We are comfortable with our own plans; they fit within our experiences. Which is also the problem - it is limited to our experiences, yet we are asking others, who have different experiences, to be responsible for the outcomes without the benefit of their perspective. While it may be true that we are limiting the risk by dictating the “how” and not just the “why,” it also means that we are limiting the chances of success by hoping that our experience provides the best answer (and often secretly thinking it is the only answer). Innovation is driven from diversity of thinking; constraints without empowerment leads to stagnation.

If we are honest with ourselves, when we micromanage others what we want is for them to be responsible for our plan.

But handing out accountability without personal agency is another way of saying we want robots instead of humans. Hopefully I don’t have to tell you that that is not the way to help people perform at their best. No one wants to be just an extension of another person, useful only if they follow the rules.

But it’s not just at the job that you find people micromanaged. Hal Runkel, a marriage and family therapist, says that one of the top complaints of parents about teens is that they don’t take responsibility. His response is, how can they? Parents are often taking the responsibility for their kids rather than letting the teens take responsibility for themselves. If the parents are doing the work, then why should the teens feel responsible?

Take the recent news of parents illegally paying for their kids to get into the college of the parents’ choice - another example of parents preparing the road ahead for the kids rather than preparing the kids for the road. We all want our kids to succeed, but the unintended consequence is that the kids don’t know how to succeed on their own without mom or dad around.

Micromanaging is a lot less subtle than the other side of the equation - empowered without constraints, or spoiled. It is most easily seen when children, or grownups, have tantrums because they did not get the outcome that they felt entitled to, which can happen because they did not understand the limitations of the situation.

But a more pervasive form can look like laziness. I believe this can be a result of not understanding what the expectations should be, even if empowered to act. In this kind of a situation people can be afraid to do much because they are afraid of stepping on someone’s toes because they are confused about the constraints and they want to play it safe.

Responsibility without accountability can take the form of entitlement for those who embrace the empowerment, or it can look like indolence for those who fear the uncertainty.

The key is finding the balance between empowerment and constraint. If you can assume responsibility and at the same time understand what you are being held accountable for, that is the sweet spot for getting results and being challenged to grow, especially if you are empowered to ask for help.

This is not quite as easy as it was to type.

This gets back to my starting story about wondering who is responsible for the trash. I can think of someone as irresponsible all I want, but if they were not in alignment with my expectations then it doesn’t really matter.

Responsibility and accountability are meaningless unless there is clarity on agreed upon outcomes.

Simon Sinek tells a story about how a friend was able to shift responsibility and accountability. The friend was at a restaurant and wanted to know if the soup was vegetarian. The waitress did not feel it was necessary to check until she felt accountable for the friend’s health. When the friend made the constraints clear - his health - she was more willing to take responsibility of finding out the answer.

We can help others and ourselves engage, collaborate, and overcome obstacles by following this simple formula for responsibility - this is the desired result with these constraints. The hard part is making it that simple.

John Scalzi states it even simpler in his book The Consuming Fire: “The plan is not the goal. The goal is the goal.”

I was frustrated with the trash that I saw on my walk. If the goal I want is to have a clean neighborhood, then maybe I should take responsibility for it and let my actions empower others. If you see a guy walking around with a grabber and a trash bag, wave.