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The Difference Between Fault and Responsibility

What do you think when you hear “Whose responsibility is this?” Does it sound like looking for someone to blame, or does it sound like looking for someone to take command? It probably sounds like looking for someone to blame, and that’s unfortunate. Today I want to talk about the difference between fault and responsibility.

To set a little context, I’d like to share a historical reminiscence. Some of you may remember back in the 1990s when there was a lot of concern in the US about how Japan was going to end up owning America.1 The Japanese economy was booming, Japanese companies were making money hand-over-fist, and so Japanese companies (and wealthy individuals) were buying up land and office buildings in the US.

With that background, there were a lot of articles about the Japanese way of doing business, and what we might learn from it. I read a few of these, and in one of them, I saw a quote that has stuck with me ever since. It was talking about the cultural differences in how businesses respond to problems as they come up, and the writer quoted someone as saying:

In America, they fix the blame; in Japan, they fix the problem.

Now, whether or not this was actually true is beyond my expertise, and almost certainly open to discussion. But, the idea was that, as far as this person could tell, American businesspeople were generally concerned with figuring out who was at fault for the problem, while Japanese businesspeople were generally concerned with figuring out who was going to fix the problem.

In case it’s not obvious, I want to spend the rest of this article trying to encourage everyone to take the Japanese perspective above.

In common conversation, we blur these two concepts of fault and responsibility together. If we’re talking about some problem that exists, and we ask, “Whose responsibility is this,” we’re likely to be asking who caused it. But, the far more important question, in both a business and personal context, is who’s going to fix it.

Asking “Whose fault is this” is backward-looking. Just like asking why, it leaves us stuck in the past. By contrast, asking “Whose responsibility is this (to fix)” is forward-looking. It allows us to look towards the future, to think about how we’re going to make things better.

In a business context, there are far more factors that go into deciding whose responsibility it is than I can possibly discuss here. The one important thing to note, though, is that the person who’s responsible for fixing the problem is not always the person who caused the problem. If there’s an IT problem because someone opened an attachment they shouldn’t have, it’s going to be IT’s job to fix the problem (and, presumably, to take steps to prevent its reoccurrence).

Now, in a personal context, if I’ve got a problem, the answer to “Whose responsibility is this to fix” is always the same: it’s mine. It can be tempting to spend time trying to find the person to blame, but it’s almost never helpful. It leaves us stuck in the past and in resentment, and prevents us from finding a solution.

It can also be tempting to say something like, “Well, they caused the problem, so they should fix it!” While this might be true in some sense, making things someone else’s responsibility puts us at their mercy—it makes our happiness, or our accomplishments, or our fulfillment, dependent on what someone else does, and when they do it.

If I have a problem, and it’s causing me distress or concern or discomfort, waiting for someone else to fix it is really just the equivalent of deciding to continue to have that problem.

Now, the most common rationale for assigning blame is something like “How can we prevent the problem from happening again if we don’t know who caused it?” There’s a kernel of truth in there, to be sure. But, it’s not nearly as true as we’d like to believe. Just like asking why won’t automatically lead us to a solution, assigning blame won’t automatically lead us to prevention.

Lots of problems show up in my life that aren’t necessarily my own fault. But, if I want to be happier, I’m well served to take responsibility for the solution, regardless of who caused them. You might find that the same applies to you.

  1. Yes, there was a whole bunch of casual and not-so-casual racism stuck in there. Discussion for another time.

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