Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Responsibility Deconstructed

Responsibility is something I've been thinking about for a while, mostly in the context of how it relates to a Commanding Officer's responsibility for her ship and crew, but also as it extends to family and other general circumstances. We use the word so very much but I've never taken the time before to really consider how it deconstructs. What is responsibility, really? What are the elements of responsibility? I don't think I can cover all the intricacies, but what I came up with is this...responsibility is some conglomeration of ownership, agency, accountability and acknowledgement.

Huh, that doesn't help so much.

So, accountability--I used to think that responsibility and accountability were fairly synonymous, at least as the terms are used in CG-speak because they're used in tandem so often. With further consideration, though, I think that accountability is the enforcement arm of responsibility. Responsibility without accountability is pretty wet-noodled, wishy-washy and ripe for abuse. I mean, even if it's personal accountability in the form of integrity, some sort of long arm of the law is necessary to ensure the responsible person does what they say they're going to do and what they're supposed to do.

Acknowledgement--in the form of public acknowledgement of the individual's position of responsibility. *That* person is responsible for *that* thing, and everybody involved with *that* thing knows it. Other, unrelated people can know too, but the people that have some of their own stake in the matter must know. Kinda like why they make us all learn our Chain of Command in boot camp and include it in the IDP. That way there's not a whole bunch of people trying to be responsible for the same thing (too many Chiefs, not enough Indians) or everyone saying "it's not *my* responsibility."

Ownership and Agency--are they really the same thing? I think they're at least pretty closely related. Ownership is the personal recognition that you are responsible for something, while agency is the ability to actually do something about it. I like the description of agency here on Seth Godin's Blog: "Responsibility comes with the capacity to act in the world. If you can decide, if you can act, you have agency."

An example might help clarify each of these areas. Say you're a squirrel. As a squirrel, it's your responsibility to collect acorns. *You* know you have to collect acorns. You have ownership of the act of acorn collection. You own the acorn stash. The acorns are yours.

All the other animals in the forest know you collect the acorns. You fight over the acorns with the crows and the deer and the skunks and the...heck, I don't know what all else, the pigs and the fungus? They all know you want the acorns too, and on some level, they acknowledge your right to (some of) the acorns. Ok, so maybe the squirrel analogy doesn't work for acknowledgement so well. But you get the idea.

If you don't fulfill your responsibility of collecting the acorns...well, you'll starve. That's a pretty straightforward impact of not doing what you're supposed to do = accountability.

And you are able to collect the acorns. No one has caged you up, restricted your movements so you are unable to search out and store the acorns in your desired cache. You didn't have a mishap jumping from tree to tree where you whooops, missed by just a little bit and fell to break your leg on a rock. There is a bounty of droughts or floods destroyed the annual acorn crop. You have the agency to collect acorns. (But what if there was a drought or flood, would you still have agency?...we're in a federal budget crisis. Do we still have sufficient agency over our budget? How do these externalities fit into the concept of responsibility?)

So maybe it breaks down like this: you have know you're responsible for the acorn, the world has to know you're responsible for the acorn, you have to have the power to do something about the acorn, and there have to be consequences if you don't do something about the acorn. I know it's a ridiculous and simplistic example, but am I missing anything?


Sassenach said...

Recast the squirrel as a shepherd and I think you've got a better metaphor. Acorns are inanimate objects; you've got to include the free agency of the object of responsibility to truly understand the complexity involved.

I feel a blog post coming on....

Just a Girl said...

Shoots...I forgot the power of the acorns! Of course the acorns have to acknowledge their role as squirrel food (thinking of the acorn in the Ice Age movies that continually torments the prehistoric squirrels).