The Clarity of Responsibility

Sitting in the optometrist’s office (long story) I heard two different explanations for the same chain of events from the same person. The eyeglass tech had fitted a pair of glasses to a patient. He left and returned a few minutes later, pointing out that his lenses weren’t “darkening” as required in sunlight.

The tech reviewed the paperwork, confirmed that indeed, his glasses should be tinted. The gentleman politely asked who made the mistake. Without hesitation, the tech placed the blame on the lab for not fulfilling the order correctly. The patient then requested a discount for the inconvenience. With a laugh, the tech replied that wasn’t possible, but she would get the mistake fixed right away, so sorry for the inconvenience. The gentleman left, and the tech placed her call to the lab.

During the call, no mention of the lab’s mistake was ever discussed. Instead, the tech indicated she had made the mistake by not requesting the tinted lenses the first time around. Huh. Same situation. Same person describing the events. Two totally different stories.

We’ve picked up a nasty habit of shying away from responsibility. The tech faced no repercussions for telling the truth. Perhaps the patient would have pressed more forcefully for a discount, but based on my observations, I didn’t think it likely. Why didn’t she own the mistake?

I firmly believe, and I’m not exempt from this either, that it’s the little acts, the little words, that influence how you respond in the important situations. Think about when young kids discover lying. At first, depending on how creative they are, the lies seem funny, even cute. The trait becomes much less attractive with age, especially among people who you expect better from. I remember my dismay when I realized that teachers could lie just as easily as my young friends.

I know there will be people who scoff, who believe I’m blowing a common, everyday situation out of proportion. That’s ok. In a way, I understand, because it is something relatively simple. The tech broke no law. She, arguably, did nothing out of the ordinary or unexpected. After all, how often do we see people taking public responsibility for much bigger mistakes with much greater consequences? People are quick to take credit for the good things that happen, but run for the hills when the reverse is the case. Winston Churchill said, “The price of greatness is responsibility,” but it’s a price very few seem willing to pay. (link)

After every public debacle (think Watergate, the S&L scandal, Enron) we’ve cried for reforms, for individuals to be held responsible. But how hard is it to demand responsibility from on high if we aren’t responsible in our daily lives? Ken Lay wasn’t always CEO of Enron. I suspect that prior to all that nonsense he was engaged in other responsibility-avoiding behavior. He was never called on it. It only mattered (or was at least commented on) when it affected a greater number of people. This states the obvious, but wouldn’t we prefer that people respect responsibility before they took public roles?

The tech I witnessed today will probably never hold a role greater than her position at the optometrist’s office. For me, her behavior captures the one of the things I find most aggravating about society. Why don’t we take more pride in standing for something, in owning up to both the good and the bad that we’ve been a part of?



3 Responses to “The Clarity of Responsibility”

  1. September 11, 2007 at 8:51 am

    I *love* taking responsibility, because it stops a wasteful cycle of fingerpointing. At my old job, I’d do it all the time. Someone would ask, “why did the server rollout slip two days?” Silence for a few heartbeats. I’d step up, “ME! I did it! It’s all my fault. Now what?”

    My point was always the same. To MY line of work, managing projects, the “who” never mattered. To operations, after the implementation, who mattered much more. And that was a different thing.

    But the habit sticks. It’s always my fault.

  2. 2 Britt
    September 11, 2007 at 9:30 am

    Meetings would always come to a standstill until someone said, “I’m responsible.” No one seemed to care if the real person accepted responsibility, only that someone did. I’m in the same place as you. It seemed like you could actually get something done if you said, “Great, I did it. Now, let’s fix it.”

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September 2007
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