Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Responsibility and guilt

Sometimes things don't go as we planned. Sometimes we make mistakes.
But there are different ways of responding to these situations.

When I was a kid I remember being told "there's no use crying over spilled milk." This principle is at the heart of what I'm interested in here. What do we do to respond to these situations?

One thing we can do, of course, is beat ourselves up over the mistake. This is the crying over spilled milk. But if you have just spilled milk, crying doesn't clean up the spill; taking action does.

When we have erred in some way--for example we didn't get work done that we intended--or we are told we erred in some way--for example, a reader gives back our work with significant negative commentary--we have a situation that we want fixed. We want to clean up the mess; we want to get the work done; we want to get better feedback.

Guilt doesn't accomplish these things. Whether you are guilty, or whether you believe someone else is, looking for guilt and focusing on identifying the guilty party does not resolve the situation at hand. Often we want to find the guilty party and have that person remedy the situation--that makes sense--that's a course of action to fix things. But often we look for the guilty party for the sake of punishment--even when we are the guilty party. And what good does that do?

Therein, I think, lies a primary difference between being responsible and being guilty. When one is responsible, one takes action to remedy errors; when one is guilty, one may look for courses of punishment.

There are those who believe that guilt requires punishment--it's a principle built into most legal systems. Is that principle also applicable to our lives when we're working on a project?

When we have a project that isn't going as well as we hoped, we have a choice between being responsible and being guilty. Which choice is more likely to help you get the project finished?

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