So You Think You’re Responsible?

The last blog suggested that the concept of responsibility should not be seen as primarily moral. Responsibility is something about who you are and your capacities. Some even suggest that responsibility is a virtue.

We need more clarity, though, and Aristotle suggests that it is comparatively simple. For him it is about imputability, and accountability. These are connected, and the first is about critical agency, owning ideas and practice, and putting this into practice in decision making.

Of course, as I suggested last time this is not simply about narrow rationality. Any ideas that we have are connected to feelings, which are in turn expressed through values- moral, social and so on. Much of the time seem to be operating at the ‘rational’ level but are actually operating at much weightier, unchallenged, feeling level. Jonathan Haidt says something similar in the way he sees different values at the heart of the Republican/Democrat divide.

Where I take issue with Haidt is precisely that critical agency is about testing those feelings so that they do not, of themselves, determine thought and action.

If we drill down this first mode of responsibility, critical agency, several integrated aspects emerge, including:

  • Critical thinking (cognition): the capacity to think rationally: to frame an argument (logically and with empirical evidence), and to critique an argument; knowing what you are talking about. As a practical skill this includes the capacity to identify logical and ethical fallacies, and how to challenge these. Don’t for one minute think this is common. Many of the leaders involved in the credit crisis did not have this capacity.
  • Metacognition and mindfulness: The first of these involves the capacity to the think critically about how we think, focused in reflective practice. The second involves holistic awareness, enabling both the development of the observing self and thus awareness of the self and social and physical environment, and the continually changing nature of life. This includes knowledge of one’s own capabilities and limitations
  • Critical awareness of the social and physical environment and the nature of the individual’s and organization’s relationship to these, and the consequences of actions. This goes beyond ‘stakeholder relations’ management, and even involves responsibility for how we perceive the wider environment. Such perception involves both appreciation of its complexity, i.e. who and what is involved, and judgement about the significance of related actions. Just try this out for yourself go to foyer of your workplace and recount to yourself what you see and what it means, and ask a colleagues to do the same. Then consider what accounts for any difference in perception.
  • Awareness of and the capacity to respond to the ambiguity of social environments. This applies at both board level and in relation to members of the organization and wider society, focusing on psychology and social psychology, which includes: the nature of group dynamics; strategies for addressing power asymmetry; dealing with power abuse; and conflict resolution capacities and techniques. Sen notes the importance of recognising diversity, embodied in multiple narratives, in the self, the organization and the wider political sphere. Conflict is precisely based in polarized perception which ‘rubs out’ the complexity, and thus humanity, of the other.
  • Critical appreciation of purpose. This is about the value of the person or organization, including the value to society. One of the key issues in the credit crisis was the failure of the finance industry to appreciate its value, and thus importance to a thriving society, in terms of providing a financial framework for all society. In turn there was no sense of individual professional value to the wider finance industry.
  • Critical appreciation of moral values (only now!) central to social practice within and outside the organization. This demands awareness of and critical reflection on such values. Key moral principles include justice, respect, dignity, beneficence, non-maleficence, and related principle which inform healthy and morally good relationships, not least freedom, equality, and community. Precisely because the first set of principles are so broad and complex this demands the skill of practical reflection- to see what they actually look like in practice. Precisely because the second set of principles are interrelated this demands critical reflection on how they can be embodied together.
  • Competency in practice. In the credit crisis many leaders and wider boards did not have competence in their areas, e.g. some major bank boards were dominated by retail not bank specialists. This demands that leadership is able to focus clearly on the core practice of the organization.

This is quite a list for just one aspect of responsibility. It involves autonomy, taking responsibility for each of these things; governing the self. It also involves authenticity; these are my feelings, my sense of value, my ideas, my relationships….

Each of these capacities is necessary for the practice of the others. You can’t develop moral judgement without awareness and appreciation of the social and physical environment; you can’t respond to the social and physical environment if you are not aware of how you relate to it or the value that you or your organization have, and so on. Each of them is involved in developing individual and organizational identity- knowing who I am/ we are. And each forms the basis of accountability

Prof.  Simon Robinson

Director, Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility




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