Three Rings of Responsibility

By Danita Johnson-Hughes, Ph.D.

Never before has it been more obvious that the world needs new leaders. In this increasingly global economy, where one’s actions, or inaction, can potentially impact people on the other side of the globe, this has never been more apparent.   Individuals are needed who have the willingness to make things better for everyone. But before anyone can change the world, you have to change the circumstances in your immediate sphere of influence.

To do that, the ability to connect with other people becomes important. First however, you have to understand who you really are. And you can’t do any of these things until you begin to take responsibility for yourself and your part in the world. If you want to create change in your businesses, your community or yourself, you have to be willing to let the buck stop with you.

There are three rings of responsibility, all of which must be addressed before change of any kind can take place: Personal, Proximal, and Social.

Personal responsibility requires introspection. You have to take responsibility for yourself, your actions and what you accomplish in your life. You have to know who you are and what you value.

When you take personal responsibility, you create worthy goals and are able to act on those goals, becoming the best you can be and creating the ability to help others in the process. Responsibility means not blaming yourself or others for your mistakes. When you fail, you acknowledge your failures, assess what you did right and what you did wrong, and then move on to create new goals.

Taking responsibility means being open to new ideas, open to other people, open to the world and your part in it. Responsible people don’t always expect to succeed and they aren’t afraid to fail. They simply understand that results require work. Responsible people accept life’s rewards and its difficulties with grace.

Proximal responsibility means taking responsibility to support your boss, co-workers and subordinates by giving them honest feedback, sharing information, encouraging them when their actions positively affect you or your organization, and holding them accountable when that effect is negative.

When reaching out to others seems like too much work, or it feels embarrassing or intrusive, it’s tempting to just say, “It’s not my job.” It’s true, none of us is personally responsible for what other people do or what happens to them, unless something you do directly helps, hurts, or hinders them in some way.

However, companies can’t survive or thrive unless employees help and support each other. If co-workers don’t reach out to help others, they, in turn, won’t get the help they need at crucial moments. When colleagues reach out to help other employees, another link is added to the strong chain that’s needed to build the kind of organization that benefits us all.

Social responsibility is built on interlocking relationships in which everyone takes responsibility for each other as a group. A person who takes action to make a difference in her department, division or the organization as a whole understands that the changes she brings about will ultimately trickle down to one person. That person could be a customer, subordinate, or even herself. She knows that by reaching out to affect the greater good she strengthens the bonds that tie all stakeholders together, increasing the organization’s chances to not only survive but to thrive and be successful.

Social responsibility means looking at the issues that affect individuals and, rather than complaining or assigning blame, asking what can be done to turn those issues around, not just for yourself but for the entire organization.

People who take social responsibility seriously understand that everything they do or fail to do affects everyone else. When you make positive contributions for the greater good, you make it easier for others to be productive and successful. And that means it’s likely you’ll also make positive contributions to the organization, improving everyone’s chances for success. But when all you do is constantly complain you make the workplace a little worse for everyone.

To be clear, if you really want to change yourself and your world, you must approach it from all three rings of responsibility because none of the rings works well without the other two.

It’s true, of course, that if everyone took some personal responsibility, there would be less need for people to take on social responsibility. But how long do you think you’d be sitting around waiting for everyone to step up to the plate? How far has that kind of thinking gone to changing your organizations and our world so far?

The simple fact is when stronger people take social responsibility, it becomes easier for those weaker to take personal responsibility. If you have the talent and strength to take on social responsibility to help turn around your organization, then you have the responsibility to use that talent and strength to do so.

So individual responsibility becomes social responsibility and social responsibility becomes individual responsibility. And proximal responsibility is the glue that holds it all together.

It’s easier for groups and individuals to relate to each other, for social responsibility to intersect with individual responsibility, when it is all connected through the lens of one-to-one relationships. When you are accountable to others and for others, you strengthen your identity as an individual while also strengthening your ties to the group.

At some point, every failure of government, every financial debacle in the business world, every rift in families can usually be traced back to one person’s failure to take responsibility for his or her part in a problem, or its solution.

Taking responsibility for your life and your actions is the foundation that must be established before beginning to take on the proximal responsibility of helping others. As a result, you will gain the skills necessary to take on greater social responsibility.

This is how responsibility works. This is how successful organizations work, when they do work.

Read other articles and learn more about Danita Johnson Hughes, Ph.D..

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