On Responsibility

Two concepts which are core to Modulate’s culture are ownership and autonomy. Both of these simple words conceal a great deal of complexity, though – and they share at their root the concept of responsibility.

In order to think more precisely about what “responsibility” is, I tend to break it into two. Moral responsibility is how we judge people on their intentions – i.e., what it takes for someone to be “good”. Tactical responsibility is how we hold ourselves accountable to achieving desirable outcomes – i.e., what we need in order to be “effective”.

Moral responsibility is a values judgement – when someone holds you morally responsible for something, they want and expect you to feel bad about it. Tactical responsibility speaks to choices and context. Tactical responsibility should be devoid of sentiment, and should focus only on how to prevent the bad outcome from happening again.

If an employee is not getting their work done, that’s a bad outcome – tactical responsibility needs to be meted out. But what about moral responsibility? You need to investigate where this bad outcome came from. If the employee doesn’t value doing work, and so is simply choosing not to, then that’s a values failure – for which you could hold them morally responsible. But they might simply not understand the tools they need to use, which is not a moral failing. So understanding this is the difference between blaming or accusing the employee and offering them the help they need to do better. It’s a huge difference, and so, so important to understand.

Basically, you can hold people morally responsible if and only if they intended something bad. This isn’t tied to outcomes at all – which means, if someone intends to do evil but is thwarted, they can still be held morally responsible.

In contrast, you can only hold someone tactically responsible if their actions contributed in some way to the badness of an actual outcome.

Holding someone morally responsible is something done through condemnation, with the goal of squashing the underlying bad values. This is different from the goal of avoiding any particular bad outcome. Because it relates to values, which are hard to change, sometimes it’s also upheld through exile – for instance, firing or not hiring an employee because their values don’t match those of your company. And because it relates to intentions, which are difficult to understand, we tend to chafe at more severe criminal punishments, such as imprisonment. (See for instance the debate, sparked by Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in our elections, regarding whether it can be considered obstruction if there was intent but no actual impact on the investigation. Those who are arguing it was obstruction are arguing that we should have a federal process for holding people morally responsible. This might make sense in certain individual circumstances, but to generalize it would require the ability to detect honest or dishonest intentions from would-be criminals – which poses some complicated questions, to say the least.)

Holding someone tactically responsible is done by changing their likely future behavior. This can be done a variety of ways – through direct feedback, changing their incentives, providing them context or strategies they may not have had previously, etc. But it’s important to remember that if your goal is to change outcomes – in other words, to hold someone tactically responsible – you must first figure out the right way you can help them that will lead to the desired change. (For instance, if we want to avoid crime, we can incentivize people against it by threatening punishment – which changes the choices they opt to make – or we can educate them about alternatives to resorting to crime so they have the opportunity to reach their goals without breaking the law. But taking uninformed action – for instance, following around a criminal screaming that they are a bad person – might feel good, but it fails to properly hold them responsible. Even though they might be suffering to hear your words, you’re not giving them the tools, context, or incentives they need to actually change their behavior.

When people try to uphold moral responsibility using the wrong approach, it causes problems. Consider the sending your kid to their room after a long day without clearly explaining what mandate they’ve broken. This is ineffective, because their values won’t change unless you’re able to directly call out and confront what’s wrong with them. Similarly, designing a diet and exercise regimen for someone uninterested in losing weight is destined to fail.

Using the wrong approach to uphold tactical responsibility is also problematic. Imagine telling your employee that they were a bad person for focusing on the wrong project, or starting a public shaming campaign against someone convicted of accidental manslaughter. This is less likely to prevent issues than to cause that person unnecessary pain, and close them off to more useful advice.

As a founder of a company, I believe I have a moral responsibility to set a strong and positive culture. If I hire a known racist because they write great code, I can and should be held morally responsible when they harass or assault others at or around the company. In fact, I can be held morally responsible, if you know this was my intent, even if they don’t harass anyone – after all, I should have docked them far more for their racism than any value I saw in them for their coding skills.

But if, instead, the racist hides their sentiment and appears perfectly normal, and convinces me to hire them, despite my spending lots of time refining the interview process to try to catch people like that – I feel comfortable saying I’m not morally responsible until I discover this about them (though subsequently I certainly would need to quickly get rid of them). Of course, I’d still hold myself tactically responsible to figuring out how they got through our interviews, so that we can prevent that outcome from happening again.

In fact, since I’m the leader of the company, I should hold myself tactically responsible for anything that relates to the company’s success.

So how does all this tie back to autonomy and ownership? These concepts come in when I ask how I should hold others responsible – and how they should hold me responsible as well.

When I talk about autonomy, what I’m saying is that I’m giving my employees as much freedom as possible, and if they fail to achieve their tasks, I’ll hold them tactically responsible by giving them useful feedback, mentoring them, or providing other help to the best of my ability. I’ll also hold myself tactically responsible, by asking whether I’ve assigned them to the right project, given them the tools they needed, etc. And of course, they should hold me tactically responsible too, by thinking about whether I could be doing something to help them that I’m not aware of, and if so helping me to understand that. (Though remember that none of this gives them license to give feedback blindly – it must always be given with an eye towards helping the recipient put it to effective use!)

When I talk about ownership, what I’m saying is that I want my employees to feel that the company reflects their values too. I want them to feel moral responsibility for the company – which means they have the right and obligation to speak up if and when they see us deviating from what they think is right. And further, that we want to hear from them, even if we can’t immediately tie it to some concrete outcome like the bottom line.

All told, I want any company I work at to enable everyone to speak their concerns; and to encourage everyone to focus more on helping each other grow than maligning each other for making mistakes. I think these definitions of autonomy and ownership capture that crucial concept – there’s a lot of complexity here, but by laying out this framework clearly, I hope to be able to facilitate more effective conversations for my own team, and ideally yours as well.

Moral or tactical feedback are both, as always, welcome.

2 thoughts on “On Responsibility

  1. “This is ineffective, because their values won’t change unless you’re able to directly call out and confront what’s wrong with them.”

    This line stuck out to me for two reasons:

    1. Can values change? 2. Can values be “wrong”? Or just simply different than your own?

    (no need to answer! we can chat about this on Thu)


    1. Thanks for this feedback! Both are really meaningful and complex questions, but here’s my take:
      1. Yes – for instance, people’s political views change over time. That said, it’s a slow process and tends to respond more to one’s environment in the long run than to short-term changes like reasoned debate.
      2. Kind of. Some values – say, something like “torturing children is good” seem pretty objectively wrong. But the values that we can all agree are wrong are pretty narrow, and not likely to come up in real conversations. The more meaningful answer to your question is that, while values aren’t really objectively wrong, they can still be wrong for a given environment. For instance, if you value the happiness of those immediately in front of you too much, you’re may have a hard time doing the job of prioritizing patients in an ER – even though having *someone* do that job is definitely valuable for society as a whole.


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