What's the difference between "fault" and "responsibility," and how can you better move from the first to the second?

Back in my auditing days at Arthur Andersen & Co., one of the audit managers flagged me down and handed me the file for a client's retirement plan and said he neededtodd herman web me to audit it.  I looked at the file and saw very little had been done because the auditor assigned to the job had recently left the firm.  I noticed the Form 5500 needed to be filed in two weeks, giving me barely enough time to finish the work – even if I dropped everything else.

While I can't recall exactly what I said to him, it must have been close to "whining" because Doug looked at me and said, "Todd, it's not your fault where this audit stands, but it’s your responsibility to get it done."

Little did I realize this was a conversation I'd remember – and write about – 37 years later.

Just the Facts

Thinking back, I realized Doug wasn't upset with me.  His tone was calm and he was just stating the facts – he had a client who needed an audit done, and he gave the work to me.

This theme – "Fault vs Responsibility" – has played out many times at Todd Herman Associates (THA), where situations occurred beyond my control, yet I still was responsible for getting something done.  Here are a few examples:

  • A key staff member quit giving only 2 days' notice – and it probably would have only been 1 day's notice, had there not been a client event scheduled the next day.
  • An ERP system implementation vendor completely wigged out during implementation and resigned from the engagement, leaving my client and me asking ourselves, "Did that REALLY happen?"  Unfortunately, it did.
  • A global pandemic threw many things in complete disarray, yet vendors and staff still needed to be paid, and – fortunately – a few clients still had projects for us to complete.

None of these situations was my fault, yet I was still responsible for getting through them.

The same theme plays out in everyday life:

  • You and your child are together in a toy store, and the child accidentally breaks something – you buy it or pay to have it fixed.
  • Your dog has to "do his business" on a walk – you pull out a poop bag and pick it up.
  • A storm blows up and spoils your cookout plans – you move things under cover or inside.
  • Your employer's e-commerce site messes up a number of customer orders – as a Customer Service rep, you understand you must own these problems until they're resolved.
  • With the bases loaded, you walk to the mound to relieve the starting pitcher – and those runners on base are suddenly your responsibility.

"The Buck Stops Here" read the sign on President Harry Truman's desk – a sign that applies to all of us, from any generation, whether we like it or not.
Harry Truman at his desk | NCpedia

Two Books For a Responsibility Tune-Up

A book that teaches a simple technique to pivot from "Not My Fault" to "My Responsibility" is QBQ: The Question Behind the Question: What to Really Ask Yourself to Eliminate Blame, Victim Thinking, Complaining, and Procrastination, by John G. Miller.

Here's all you have to do – routinely ask yourself questions like the following:

What actions can I take NOW to best move things forward?

Easy to understand?  Yes.  Hard to do consistently?  Yes.  Even so, from my experience, this is THE BEST question you can ask yourself to snap out of your pity party and lock on to your next step.

A book that approaches the same topic from a different perspective is The 85% Solution: How Personal Accountability Guarantees Success – No Nonsense, No Excuses, by Linda Galindo. This book's premise – people who believe 85% or more of their success depends on themselves, regardless of circumstances, will work hard to navigate around obstacles in the other 15%.  These are the people you want to have on your team because they'll consistently produce results.  These are folks who see things clearly without dwelling on the past.  As Linda might put it, these are people who quickly get off "Planet Guilt" and land on "Planet What Is."

In developing this newsletter's content, I asked myself why this book is NOT called The 100% Solution.  My answer?  It's not 100% because a particular situation may be so bad that NO amount of time, skill, or money can turn it completely around.  Hopefully, if you inherit such a situation, your boss recognizes this and your performance will be judged on how creatively and successfully you played a poor hand. 

Remember ...

Whoever you are, you always have a boss.  Maybe that's the business owner, the company president, the Board of Directors, or a client.  Your boss has hired you to get something done, meaning you are responsible for doing your best to achieve results, even if things are beyond your control.  It's not your fault, yet you're responsible – just like Doug taught me many years ago.


Todd L. Herman