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

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? rbrenGBFYqdeDxZESDSsjner@ChacmtFQZGrwOdySPdSsoCanyon.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:

ApplesCurrying Favor
The behavior of the office kiss-up drives many people bats. It's more than annoying, though — it does real harm to the organization. What is the behavior?
The Apollo 17 Lunar Rover, showing its damaged fenderAre You a Fender?
Taking political risks is part of the job, especially if you want the challenges and rewards that come with increased responsibility. That's fair. But some people manage political risks by offloading them onto subordinates. Be certain that the risk burden you carry is really your own — and that you carry all of it yourself.
Gen. John J. Pershing, Gen. George C. Marshall and Gen. Dwight D. EisenhowerWhen You're the Least of the Best: II
Many professions have entry-level roles that combine education with practice. Although these "newbies" have unique opportunities to learn from veterans, the role's relatively low status sometimes conflicts with the self-image of the new practitioner. Comfort in the role makes learning its lessons easier.
Jeffrey Skilling, in a mug shot taken in 2004 by the United States Marshals ServiceKinds of Organizational Authority: the Informal
Understanding Power, Authority, and Influence depends on familiarity with the kinds of authority found in organizations. Here's Part II of a little catalog of authority, emphasizing informal authority.
The Striped Anglerfish, Antennarius striatusCareer Opportunity or Career Trap: I
When we're presented with an opportunity that seems too good to be true, as the saying goes, it probably is. Although it's easy to decline free vacations, declining career opportunities is another matter. Here's a look at indicators that a career opportunity might be a career trap.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A possibly difficult choiceComing April 21: Choice-Supportive Bias
Choice-supportive bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to evaluate our past choices as more fitting than they actually were. The erroneous judgments it produces can be especially costly to organizations interested in improving decision processes. Available here and by RSS on April 21.
Two people engaged in pair collaborationAnd on April 28: The Self-Explanation Effect
In the learning context, self-explanation is the act of explaining to oneself what one is learning. Self-explanation has been shown to increase the rate of acquiring mastery. The mystery is why we don't structure knowledge work to exploit this phenomenon. Available here and by RSS on April 28.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenGBFYqdeDxZESDSsjner@ChacmtFQZGrwOdySPdSsoCanyon.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 500-1000 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.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. 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 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.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.