Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 51;   December 23, 2009: How to Avoid Responsibility

How to Avoid Responsibility

by

Taking responsibility and a willingness to be held accountable are the hallmarks of either a rising star in a high-performance organization, or a naïve fool in a low-performance organization. Either way, you must know the more popular techniques for avoiding responsibility.
Elephant Island, where Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew were marooned in 1916

Elephant Island, where Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew were marooned in 1916. After their ship Endurance was crushed in the Weddell Sea, the Shackleton expedition drifted north on sea ice from 27 October 1915 to 9 April 1916, when they reached the end of the ice and took to open boats for the journey to Elephant Island. There Shackleton left the main body of his crew, and undertook an open boat journey with five others to South Georgia, where he began navigating the bureaucracies of several governments to eventually secure a ship to rescue his marooned crew. At any of dozens of points in this saga, Shackleton could have evaded responsibility and rescued himself, from both the elements and the judgment of history. That he did not avoid that responsibility, and instead embraced it, is a lesson to us all.

Leaders, above all others, have opportunities to avoid responsibility with little risk to their reputations. Stories like Shackleton's provide inspiration and insight that are helpful to all leaders, in business, the military and government. Read the story in detail in Roland Huntford's biography of Shackleton, Shackleton. Photo by Mike Vecchione, courtesy U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

If your organization aspires to high performance, it's useful to know who avoids responsibility or the risks of being held accountable. Unless you're astute and alert, you'll eventually be a recipient of responsibility shifted by these shirkers. This little handbook is for you.

And if you're among the unfortunate majority who don't work in high-performance organizations, responsibility-shifting skills are essential to survival. Until you find a job somewhere better, this little handbook is for you.

Here are some popular techniques people use for avoiding responsibility. I've written it as a handbook for shirkers, but it's also useful for those who want to know how shirkers operate.

Telecommute
Working from a remote site makes anyone more difficult to reach, especially in emergencies. Evading responsibility is easier when you aren't there.
Fend it off
The best approach is to have the requestor ask someone else. If that doesn't work, inform the requestor that Mortimer is in charge of such things. Be creative. If all else fails, delegate.
Defer the request
Tell the requestor to come back later. Offer a particular time only if necessary. As time passes, the request might be overtaken by events, or forgotten, or the requestor might find somebody else to take responsibility.
Drag your feet
Accept the request, but send the requestor away with "Leave it on my desk," "Send me email," or even better, "Leave it with Melvin," if Melvin is your assistant. (Remember to use your assistant's actual name.) Leave-it-with-my-assistant is best because it makes you seem more important. Only later, apply the techniques below.
Demand the broomstick of the wicked witch of the West
Tell the requestor that Mortimer must deal with the request first, and after Mortimer does whatever he does, you'll review it. This protects you somewhat in case of later disaster, because you can say that you relied on Mortimer's input. Of course, again, use Mortimer's actual name.
Demand more information
In low-performance cultures,
responsibility-shifting skills
are essential to survival
Ask the requestor for more information — preferably information that takes time to acquire. During that time, you can prepare to use one of these other techniques.
Excuses, excuses
If somehow the request reaches you despite your best efforts, find excuses to delay or to send it back. Be too busy. Play dumb. Make something up. The best excuses involve travel, or people high in the org chart, or travel with people high in the org chart. The requestor must then either find someone else to deal with the request, or go ahead anyway somehow. Either way, you're off the hook.

Probably the most famous master of avoiding responsibility is Major Major Major, a character in Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Major Major avoids all contact with anyone who might want anything. Clever. Sorry, no time for questions, gotta go now. Go to top Top  Next issue: Letting Go of the Status Quo: the Debate  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenSBhmyotSMvmksNQkner@ChacKkHKmvjprpBGoxtUoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

Damage to Purple Loosestrife due to feeding by the galerucella beetleLateral Micromanagement
Lateral micromanagement is the unwelcome intrusion by one co-worker into the responsibilities of another. Far more than run-of-the-mill bossiness, it's often a concerted attempt to gain organizational power and rank, and it is toxic to teams.
1988 Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman celebrating his eightieth birthdayPolitical Framing: Strategies
In organizational politics, one class of toxic tactics is framing — accusing a group or individual by offering interpretations of their actions to knowingly and falsely make them seem responsible for reprehensible or negligent acts. Here are some strategies framers use.
A section of the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston in 2008The Politics of the Critical Path: I
The Critical Path of a project or activity is the sequence of dependent tasks that determine the earliest completion date of the effort. If you're responsible for one of these tasks, you live in a unique political environment.
Muhammad Ali in 1967Rope-A-Dope in Organizational Politics
Mohammed Ali's strategy of "rope-a-dope" has wide application. Here's an example of applying it to workplace politics at the organizational scale.
Brian Urquhart of the Office of the UN Under-Secretaries Without Porfolios. (1 January 1956)Staying in Abilene
A "Trip to Abilene," identified by Jerry Harvey, is a group decision to undertake an effort that no group members believe in. Extending the concept slightly, "Staying in Abilene" happens when groups fail even to consider changing something that everyone would agree needs changing.

See also Workplace Politics and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Office equipment — or is it office toys?Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
Tim Murphy, official photo for the 112th CongressAnd on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenXJpcshEprNpnUnQUner@ChacLZEzLvPluvxxdNnnoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.