Ambiguity of Responsibility

A man can fail many times, but he is not a failure until he begins to blame somebody else. – John Burroughs

The foregoing quotation is taken from a Harvard Business Review Working Paper on the factors which contribute to our learning from mistakes.[1] The bottom line is that, while we all make mistakes, we don’t all necessarily learn from them.  The determining factor vis a vis whether or not learning takes place is whether we view the locus of control as being internal or external.

When we believe in an internal locus of control – i.e. when we have a low level of ambiguity of responsibility – we devote more time to learning and improving our performance.  However, with an external locus of control/high ambiguity of responsibility, we lay the blame elsewhere and attribute the failure/mistakes to factors outside of our control.  As a result, we place little or no emphasis on taking responsibility for the outcome or analysing what we could have done differently.

Rightly or wrongly, a perception exists that the predominant culture in the public service is that of an external locus of control. This perception is buttressed by the fact that public officers often point to factors such as the outdated regulations, policies and procedures, poor working conditions, lack of resources etc. as the source of less than optimal productivity and quality of service.  As public sector leaders, to what extent does our behaviour reinforce or refute this perception?  Do our actions and our words send a clear message to our direct reports as well as the citizens whom we serve that the buck stops with us? Do we actually believe that it does?

When pressed, even our greatest detractors would concede that our efficacy as senior civil servants is determined to a large extent by the legal and regulatory frameworks within which we operate as well as the resources – human, financial and material – which we have at our disposal.  However, can we always confidently assert that we have done everything possible to fully leverage the resources that are available to us? Would it be accurate to state that we have totally deployed our influence and control in order to effect positive change within the system? Or do we need to concede that on occasion we blame the system – or the politicians – for things which we could indeed influence and control if we embraced a mind-set characterized by lower ambiguity of responsibility?

How would our departments, ministries and indeed countries be affected if we individually and collectively developed and maintained the habit of reflecting on mistakes/failures in order to take responsibility for identifying the differences that could really make a difference going forward?

(First published on caribbeanleadership.org)



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