Because I said so is a better argument
February 15, 2011 5:08 PM   Subscribe

Help me formulate a response to the "personal responsibility" argument.

In my workplace, it seems that whenever there is an issue, the answer is always "it's personal responsibility". We were having a staff meeting discussing ways to improve communication between various groups and a member of the group with the most power said "it's personal responsibility for you to...". This argument always seems to stop the dialog - because after all, how do you argue against this? Is there a way to derail this argument without appearing to argue for anarchy?
posted by TorontoSandy to Work & Money (20 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Isn't there such a thing as a collective responsibility? I think that's one of the fundamental reasons that human beings form societies.
posted by shii at 5:13 PM on February 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

"Let's find ways to improve our ability to carry out that personal responsibility."
posted by The World Famous at 5:16 PM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Well, yeah ... I think when there's some expectation that everyone will carry through on personal responsibility that you have to go through the process as a group of defining that set of expectations. Because not everyone will come in on the same page.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 5:23 PM on February 15, 2011

The social contract is a thing that exists. There are ways we are expected to behave with others. We don't all just form our own ways of behaving sui generis.

Design with intent is another important idea. If a communication system is not designed well, then it is much more difficult for individuals to make themselves understood and to respond to others in a timely and productive fashion.

Common sense also intrudes on the idea of personal responsibility being a buzzword. If your office is on the second floor, you don't tell everyone that it's their personal responsibility to rappel or fly or climb to the second floor. You build a staircase. It would be impractical and counterproductive to make them fend for themselves.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:25 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Individual efforts constrained by a broken system are simply wasted. Better systems are actually better.
posted by jon1270 at 5:42 PM on February 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

How about looking for examples of companies that increased communication between groups, and how this had a positive effect on their bottom line?

My argument would be that finding ways to game the system such that different groups are forced to interact more (like having them share a break room) produces synergistic effects above and beyond those which arise from personal responsibility.

This is because you don't know what you don't know. You may know, for example, that you need to create a presentation for a client and get figures from another department in your organization. You may NOT know that people in the other department are interpreting the purpose of the presentation differently, or that someone in the other department has worked with the client before and saw a presentation fail due to something you're thinking of putting into yours.

You can probably come up with better examples particular to your company. But the point is that by building something into the culture of your workplace that forces better communication to occur naturally, you wind up with better information that you would have otherwise, even though you followed your personal responsibilities to the letter.

Anyone you work with could potentially give you information that will help you, but you won't always get useful information by asking for it, because you won't know that people have it until they reveal it to you, and they won't always reveal it for the purpose of helping you. You have to create opportunities for it to fall into your lap, opportunities for chance to favor the prapared mind.
posted by alphanerd at 5:44 PM on February 15, 2011

I find that leaders who really don't know the answer will say that. It's an easy out. It's saying, "that's something I shouldn't have to coach".

A recent series of events relating to communication happened at my workplace - one area was claiming that they were not being notified of various events in the life of our product, even though emails were being sent to them on a regular basis. The problem was not that they weren't getting notified, but that we weren't using the correct system to do so, and with no official record (which is stored for all to see on the "official" communication system), that other area could get away with constantly ignoring us. At first, the official line was, "It's your responsibility if your widget isn't finished on time - you own your project" - but then everyone's widgets were being shipped late, including the leader's.

We were using the quickest communication system, and they use the "official" system. If our leadership had used the "personal responsibility" excuse on us, we would never know what the solution was. The question became "what are we not doing that allows that other department to do this" rather than, "who isn't taking personal responsibilty?". We already knew the "who" - we just didn't have the "why".
posted by brownrd at 5:50 PM on February 15, 2011

It might also help to note that "it's personal responsibility for you to..." is not an argument at all. It's a position, a policy, a value or a belief, but it isn't a logical construct. Maybe you could ask this person why they believe personal responsibility is the sole / best way to solve the problem under discussion?
posted by jon1270 at 5:51 PM on February 15, 2011

Well, it's the community's responsibility to create an atmosphere that empowers and supports personal responsibility. Unfortunately, this is kind of rare in the corporate atmosphere, but is one of the man characteristics of a successful corporation's culture.
posted by raisingsand at 6:34 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I should mark every response as a best answer! Keep them coming please. To give a little more perspective - I would have had a blast a this meeting if I was playing a drinking game! Five different people mentioned personal responsibility as the answer to different issues.
posted by TorontoSandy at 6:45 PM on February 15, 2011

...and it's my personal responsibility to make sure the systems and resources are there and tuned to support my and everyone else's efforts. If it were easy to do all this independently, we wouldn't need companies or teams at all.
posted by amtho at 6:49 PM on February 15, 2011

*main* characteristics!

Damn, it sounded so great when I posted it.
posted by raisingsand at 6:51 PM on February 15, 2011

"Fine. I am taking the responsibility of delegating this problem to you."

That's snarky enough to be counterproductive, so maybe don't actually use it except as part of a more constructive approach. I would probably go with something more like "I've tried to deal with this on my own, and have run into a wall, so I would appreciate some outside perspective/help/whatever" or "I have tried to deal with this on my own, but don't feel I have the authority to do XYZ. So will you back me up if I go ahead with XYZ?"
posted by adamrice at 6:52 PM on February 15, 2011

The problem with "personal responsibility" is that there's not necessarily a shared objective understanding of what success looks like. When this stuff comes up, it might be useful to ask for a set of metrics to objectively judge the outcome. That way people know what they're working toward and adjust their approach if it isn't working.
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:36 PM on February 15, 2011

Well, heck. It is my personal responsibility as a nurse to never make a medication error.
But it helps me a lot to in meeting that goal to have systems in place to promote medication safety.

It is my personal responsibility to drive safely, and everyone else's, also, but that doesn't mean that airbags and seatbelts are frivolous.

We all have a sense of responsibility, but it takes a lot more than that to get the job done.
posted by SLC Mom at 7:47 PM on February 15, 2011

Management needs to define tasks and priorities, ensure those being managed have the tools and wherewithal to carry out those tasks, and ensure the staff follows through, with a combination of incentives and disincentives.

If a task is a responsibility, all of the above needs to happen. If not, then you're just fucking around.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:07 PM on February 15, 2011

Five different people mentioned personal responsibility as the answer to different issues.

This seems key to me. This phrase has become a mantra, a buzzword, a sound bite, and thus devoid of meaning. I wonder if pointing out the pattern of repetition might be helpful in defeating it. Could you find diplomatic way of saying, "Five people have made that suggestion, and yet it's clearly not happening. We need to stop repeating ourselves and think of ..." finishing with what suggestions you have (possibly incorporating so many of the good ones here).
posted by TrarNoir at 9:21 PM on February 15, 2011

TrarNoir: This phrase has become a mantra, a buzzword, a sound bite, and thus devoid of meaning.

This is certainly a possibility. I can also see that the possibility that this phrase is used when people really mean: "This is not my fault. This is all your fault. I'm blaming you." Decoded this way, the phrase is not an explanation or an argument at all but an accusation.
posted by mhum at 10:43 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you have to fight a meaningless slogan, you better come up with a better meaningless (okay, not really meaningless but short & pithy) slogan that shifts the frame and is hard to argue with. I'd go for:

THEM: "It's personal responsibility for individuals to make sure the build gets checked in at the end of the day."

YOU: "Let's not focus on blame, we need to concentrate on making sure things are done right."

See? You've just defined their argument as backward-looking and about morality or blame while you are arguing on the side of final results. Who cares about "should", let's look at what is not being done and find a way to make sure it's done right.

If you get smooth at saying this comeback in a friendly way, with a smile on your face, you'll be able to blow right past their slogan and keep it from killing the conversation.
posted by iminurmefi at 7:50 AM on February 16, 2011

At my company we use this management approach called the Balanced Scorecard and one of the biggest things to take away from the whole thing is that any objective is useless unless you have a specific goal that can be measured. This also requires that you establish a means to measure progress (how many hours, how many people, etc.), so that any given time you could show whether you're falling behind, on track, or exceeding your goal.

So if one of your company's objectives is to increase communication between teams, you need a goal and a measure, like:
- X hours committed to inter-team meetings per month
- X Progress Reports posted by the each team per month

... or something more creative. It's not easy to come up with measures and goals, and sometimes what people think is an objective really isn't, it's just a symptom of a larger issue. Establishing goals and measures is actually a lot harder than it sounds, which is probably why your managers are dodging it and diluting it, making it everybody (and nobody's) problem.

Without a system, theoretically, what if everybody was actually doing what was described as their "personal responsibility?" Who would know, and how would they know it? Is the company flush with cash all of a sudden? Is everybody walking around in a state of bliss and personal fulfillment, the office smells of freshly baked bread, and random passerby genuflect at your door? Management can talk all they want about "personal responsibility" but unless everyone knows what success looks like and what it means to them, no one will give a crap and will find something else to do.
posted by krippledkonscious at 6:23 PM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

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