THE BLOG

Taking Responsibility

05/16/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Tony Schwartz President of The Energy Project; Author of Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys to Transforming the Way We Work and Live

We were out to dinner as a family -- an all too infrequent occurrence now that both my daughters are grown-up. Shortly after we sat down, a problem related to my work arose that I felt required immediate attention.

I text messaged a colleague in my office, and put my phone on the table to await a response. One of my daughters got upset that I was now preoccupied and unavailable. I felt righteous and snapped back at her. This was about a key client, I explained.

'You would never accept my having my phone on the table the way you're doing now,' she replied.

The dinner ended badly. I told myself she was being unreasonable, that this wasn't my fault. When I got home, I felt bad anyway. No justification I came up with made me feel any better. Even though my texting seemed reasonable under the circumstances, I eventually realized she was actually communicating something else.

It's that I wasn't giving her my full attention.

Being preoccupied is not something new for me, and it makes the people I care about most feel slighted. My daughter's angry reaction in this case was her responsibility. But that didn't diminish the role I'd played in this drama. And it wasn't only about this dinner.

I've been thinking a lot about taking responsibility lately. I've blogged about how few politicians do it, and then about how few senior executives at companies do it. What's dawned on me now is how few human beings do it.

The reason we feel such a compelling need to be right -- to resist taking responsibility -- is that it feels so bad to be wrong. And those are often the only choices most of us feel we have.

We live in a world that still chooses up-sides. If you're not right, you're wrong. If you're not good, you're bad. And if those are your only choices, which one are you likely to choose -- and then feel compelled to vigorously defend?

We don't seem to have a language for the complexity that characterizes most of our behaviors and interactions. We don't have a comfortable way to share responsibility. We're too worried that we'll be asked to shoulder all the blame, and that doesn't feel fair, or tolerable.

I knew the dinner confrontation with my daughter wasn't all about me, but I also realized it wasn't all about her. In the heat of the moment, we couldn't find a middle ground. We couldn't see that neither of us was either right (or wrong), but both of us had acted badly -- and needed to take responsibility for what we'd done.

The next morning, my daughter stopped off at our house to pick something up. "I'm sorry," she said, "I shouldn't have gotten so angry." I felt proud of her for stepping up, and ashamed that I hadn't first. I told her I was sorry for all the times that I didn't give her my full attention.

"It's just that it feels so good when you do," she said, which brought us both to tears.
We made an agreement that morning, and I intend to stick to it. When we're together - times now that are less frequent and therefore especially precious -- cell phones won't come between us.

We'll share that responsibility.