I am sure that you have heard those words from people on countless occasions. Other forms of the same expression include “that is not my role”, “that’s not in my employment contract” or “I can’t do everything in this organisation, you know”. People that use expressions like the above tend to pass the buck, make excuses or transfer blame of things not done to others. It’s not their responsibility because they haven’t taken responsibility! They are, in essence, being irresponsible.
I attended a leadership conference in the USA quite some time ago. One of the plenary session speakers was a young girl from the Bronx in New York, a then poor and vice-ridden suburb of the great city. She grew up having to look after her younger sister on account of the negligence of her drug-addicted parents. They had no home, but lived on the Metro, the city rail system, for three reasons: the train had lighting so they could do their home-work in the evenings, the coach had a radiator so they could keep warm in the cold New York winters and the train had bathroom cubicles so that they could wash themselves and their clothes. Every day after school, she would place her sister in after-care, and then go and pump gas (petrol attendant) at the local gas station to attempt to earn enough tips to buy food for the day. If she earned more tips than usual, she would attempt to find her parents in the ghettos of the Bronx to give them some of the food. This same young lady completed four years of high school in two years and with distinction, still pumping gas, still living on the train and still looking after her sister. She likewise completed her university degree and now teaches company boards and executive committees on “how to take responsibility”.
This young lady’s example is clearly inspirational and highlights the potential of the human being. Unfortunately, most people do not ever reach this potential and rather degenerate into what Dr Martin Seligman called “learned helplessness” (from his book “Learned Optimism”). He identifies three patterns of belief that increase a feeling of helplessness:
- Permanence – feeling that the situation will never pass
- Pervasiveness – feeling that the problem controls your whole life
- Personal – feeling that this only happens to you, that no-one else is struggling to the same extent that you are
Not much in life is permanent, pervasive or personal – we can overcome the most significant of difficulties, stresses and pressures, but to do this, we need to take responsibility. Proactive people take responsibility, even over situations they didn’t directly cause. They may not necessarily be able to control all parts of the problem nor all ingredients to the solution, but they take control over the percentage of the issue that is in their hands and attempt to influence the outcome within the rest.
Saying “it’s not my responsibility” could be seen as irresponsible!