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Unfortunately, taking responsibility too often gets confused with accepting blame.  The words, “Who did this!” have echoed in our ears from childhood, and the desire to have it be someone else’s crime is universal.  Shifting blame can look like a safe strategy, protecting us from the negative consequences of our actions.  It softens that sinking feeling we experience when we realize we’ve made a mistake and it holds out the possibility that we will escape punishment.  As a result, human beings are natural finger-pointers, and we wiggle and squirm to keep any fingers from pointing at us, including our own.   “It wasn’t my fault!” “I didn’t do it.”  “I wasn’t there.”  “She said she would take care of it.”  “But I sent you an email!”

So what’s the difference?  Blame is about punishment.  It’s a guilty verdict.  Though usually externally generated by our circle of colleagues, family and friends, we are also pretty good at blaming ourselves.  Blame says bad, bad, bad. It says we should be ashamed. It isolates us and discriminates against us.  Accepting blame can feel like we are being cut off from the things we value most – respect, love, community, care.  Taking responsibility, on the other hand, is about owning our imperfections.  It’s about identifying the part we played in what went wrong, and making amends.  It’s about learning not to do it again.  It allows us to build something better and stronger – a company, a team, a relationship.  It allows us to grow and change.

I once conducted a leadership seminar where a serious conflict arose between two of the attendees.  Both felt wronged and were obviously angry, and the meeting ended in tension and uneasiness. During our debrief, one of the combatants asked, “Did I contribute to this misunderstanding by not being as clear as I needed to be?” I agreed that could be one part of the problem. “Well, then, I need to fix this.  Let’s talk it over.”  She then spent 15 or 20 minutes in discussion with me and with her colleague, accepting responsibility for her part in the misunderstanding, and receiving an equally gracious acknowledgement of responsibility from her colleague for his part in the disagreement.  They announced to a relieved group that hostilities were ended, and scheduled a forum for renewed collaboration the following day.  She told me later that she was amazed at the positive change in their working relationship.  “In just a few minutes, we almost wrecked our chances of moving forward, but in an equally few minutes, we formed a new bond as responsible leaders in the organization, and we’re now setting an example for how our teams work out their differences.”

Taking responsibility is an essential component of leadership.  A responsible person is an effective responder to changing circumstances. The willingness to accept consequences for our decisions frees us up to make them quickly and move into action.  It’s a paradox: the apparent risk of being identified with a course of action and standing behind our choices actually makes us safer, because we’re in a position to redress any imbalances or resolve unintended missteps.  The medical profession is a perfect example.  Recent research has shown that doctors who take responsibility for medical mistakes and make amends directly to patients and their families have a much lower rate of malpractice suits. When doctors acknowledge culpability and show their concern, they are more likely to be forgiven than sued.  We may not hold someone’s life in our hands, but every day we make decisions that impact those around us.  When we own our actions, and have the courage to take responsibility, we are better able to navigate the shifting business landscape and position ourselves for success.