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

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