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June 2, 2020

Fault Vs Responsibility

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I wanted to make a distinction between two important terms that I think we can all relate to. This specifically pertains to when things don’t go right and how we handle poor performance in a team setting. The two terms we’re dissecting today are “fault” and “responsibility”.

I know they already sound very different, but it’s not immediately obvious why that is. Let’s explore that.

The first difference is in the implied time frame. When someone is at fault it, focuses on the past and how things were meant to go. Yes, that’s when the error or oversight took place, but what good is it talking about something in a way that can’t be changed? When it is someone’s responsibility, you still create the opportunity for a constructive confrontation but do so in a way that suggests there are actions today that can remedy the error. Leaning more into the ways things can be fixed than just the things that went wrong.

A second big differentiator, is the mindset and intent you take in addressing the error. When you say that someone is at fault, they are blamed for causing the negative result and the consequences that comes with it.  The focus here is on how things went wrong, which comes from a less collaborative place. When you recognize it was someone’s responsibility to manage something, and that thing went wrong, then you’re taking a more holistic angle that implies this isn’t an incident in isolation. It acknowledges that they had responsibility outside of this specific instance, suggesting there were many times everything went right! It also provides more perspective to the problem and respects the work typically required to maintain whatever was neglected, suggesting that sure this didn’t go according to plan and that’s not okay but it is a mistake among other positive performances.

That’s the way I see it anyway. If at all possible, limit the amount of fault you assign to people when things go wrong. Instead, try to acknowledge their responsibilities in order to have a more constructive conversation.

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