Benchmark Ethics: Responsibility

Irresponsibility is an epidemic in our era. Too many individuals and organizations deny, ignore, or evade responsibility for their actions. In all sectors, irresponsibility is rising — blaming others, excusing oneself, and telling everyone else to buzz off.

The high profile cases are troubling, of course (Presidents Nixon and Clinton, the Challenger space disaster, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, etc.). But, these extreme cases must not blind us to the cumulative negative impact irresponsibility can have in the trenches of ordinary, day-to-day business life. A culture of irresponsibility breeds dissension and distrust among colleagues and customers and long-term disaster and loss for shareholders and stakeholders.

Responsibility literally means “answerability” or “accountability.” The responsible party is the one deserving praise or blame for what happens. A responsible person (or company) willingly accepts accountability, agrees to care for something, and can be counted upon to do what they say
they will.

Responsibility doesn’t stand by itself. It must be based on three things: freedom, knowledge, and relationship.

First, responsibility has to be linked to freedom. Holding people responsible without their having freedom to choose and to act is a sham and a farce — like a tyrant who hangs some poor souls, blaming them for the bad weather. Freedom is not, of course, some absolute or pure condition. No one is ever wholly free in their actions — nor are they wholly determined. Our responsibility is proportional to our freedom and opportunity. If we ask people to be more responsible, we must give them a commensurate freedom and opportunity.

Today’s organizational and technological landscape is highly conducive to such freedom. Rigid hierarchies and dictatorial leadership are on the way out. Shared authority and opportunity are diffused widely through our networks. The challenge is to make sure that a well-developed sense of responsibility accompanies this expanding freedom.

Second, responsibility is grounded in knowledge. If we want people and organizations to accept responsibility, they must be given access to the knowledge required for wise decisions.
Generally speaking, our contemporary situation bodes well for this knowledge factor. Never has it been easier or quicker to find out the facts, or to consult quickly with a veteran about some issue.

Third, personal responsibility is grounded in relationships. A “response” is to someone (or something). Human beings are accountable to others for many of their choices and actions because our lives and interests are interdependent. We are responsible for our fair share of caring for what we have in common — to those with whom we share life, to others with whom we work, to neighbors with whom we share a space, to fellow-citizens with whom we share a political order, and even to those with whom we share the planet. Irresponsibility is selfishness at its worst.

A robust sense of responsibility comes with good relationships. It is harder to be irresponsible when we know we will have to live and work with those who share the consequences of our failure. Experience tells us that it is harder, for example, to pollute the water and endanger the offspring of people living just a few miles downstream than it is to endanger lives thousands of miles away among people we will never have to meet.

Does today’s world of business and technology create — or undermine — the sort of relationships that responsibility thrives upon? It may be that the anonymity information technology provides will permit new extremes of irresponsibility; on the other hand, privacy advocates are wringing their hands over the declining possibility of privacy (and thus anonymity); the outcome here is uncertain.

The massive size and complexity of many of today’s organizations and networks means that it is seldom easy to point to one responsible party for anything. Responsibility is diffused through a myriad of micro-decisions in complex networks. But, when something is everybody’s responsibility, it often becomes nobody’s. Somebody, some group, has to step up and take responsibility.

On the positive side, information technology networks often facilitate the building and sustaining of relationships. “Networks” are networks of relationships. If responsibility is relationship-dependent, we have an era of new possibilities.

Relationships, just like freedom and knowledge, do not automatically produce responsibility. The virtue needs to be named explicitly, demonstrated in the lives of leaders, celebrated, preached, taught, and sold to our organizations.

Most companies have stories of heroically responsible founders or employees that can be retold. Most individuals, old and young, are able to see the self-evident harm that is caused by irresponsibility. Responsibility is not some trendy new idea — it is a fundamental, benchmark, human value.

David W. Gill was co-founder of IBTE and author of Benchmark Ethics, a regular article in the first 32 issues of Ethix. After eight years of writing, speaking, teaching, and consulting in the Bay Area of California, he joined the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Center (South Hampton, Mass.) in 2010, where he is also Director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace.