Returning to her office after a field safety inspection, Joanne noticed packaging littered all about her building’s main entrance. Without hesitating, Joanne collected the litter and disposed of it in a trash receptacle. Entering the office, a co-worker asked, “Why did you pick up that litter? We have custodial staff for that job. You could have called them.” Joanne responded, “I couldn’t just walk by and let that mess deface our attractive building.”

Joanne’s experience is not only a story of taking personal responsibility, it illustrates a common technique of denying responsibility. No one watching Joanne pick up trash ventured outside to help her. They took time to observe and criticize, but not to participate.

Certainly these onlookers did not view themselves as irresponsible or even lacking personal responsibility. They had a handy excuse for not helping: “It’s not my job.” How many times have you heard that? This is probably the most common reason for not going beyond the call of duty to help another person. This rationale for “passing the buck” is actually supported by the typical questions we ask when noticing a problem.

Questions that deflect

Questions beginning with who, what, and when avoid personal responsibility by putting accountability somewhere else.

Who made that workstation so messy?

What safety regulation was not followed?

When will the company install an adequate ventilation system?

I’m not saying these are bad questions to ask, not at all. They represent the kind of questions needed to identify and solve problems related to occupational safety. But they do imply the problem is beyond the individual and a solution requires support and action from other people.

Surely we can ask “why.” But some “why” questions are nonproductive and facilitate denial of personal responsibility. Why was I given this assignment? Why me? These “why” questions activate and support victim thinking and contribute to the avoidance of personal responsibility.

What can I do?

The simple question, “What can I do?”, reflects the essence of personal responsibility. That’s the implicit question Joanne asked when noticing a littered entrance to her office building. She didn’t ask, “Who did that?” or “Why did they do it?” or “Whose job is it to fix that?”

Instead, Joanne asked “What can I do to help?” and then she did what she could do. She took personal responsibility. That’s my proposal for a 2004 New Year’s Safety Resolution. Instead of asking questions that give us an excuse to “pass the buck” to someone else sometime later, let’s ask, “What can I do right now to help?”

SIDEBAR: We can’t do it all

Joanne’s personal action was sufficient to resolve the litter problem. Similarly, many of our own actively-caring behaviors can provide quick-fix solutions to relatively minor problems. But often we find ourselves in the midst of a safety-related issue that has no quick-fix solution. A long-term investment of financial and interpersonal resources is needed. As a result, it’s easy to deny personal responsibility with the claim, “There’s nothing I can do without more support.”

The big picture may seem overwhelming, and a solution to a certain safety problem may seem remote even with substantial support. But doing nothing at all helps nothing, and could be risky. So break it down. Find something small within your own domain of influence that relates to the problem and take personal responsibility to perform that action.

Start by defining the problem in terms of actions or behaviors, then identify talents or work assignments related to each action, and then select something from this list you can accomplish. Personal responsibility starts with the creation of this list of problem-related activities. Consider persuading someone else to take on a solution-related assignment commensurate with his or her talent and position in the organization. Then find others to contribute within their domain of personal control.