Taking responsibility for one’s actions is often at the core of many legal disputes that I mediate.  Something has gone wrong, someone has been harmed in some way and the injured party wants the “responsible” party to make things right. That party may proclaim that it’s blameless, that it’s the victim of the situation, being unfairly singled out to right a wrong it had no part in creating.

Often there is some responsibility for all the parties.  That truck collided with your car, but if you were more focused on driving and less on your cell phone, you may have been able to avoid it.  Mistakes were made during that heart operation, but if not for decades of over eating and smoking maybe you wouldn’t have been on the operating table in the first place. Your spouse had an affair, but if you weren’t so single minded on running your business, and channeled enough of that time and energy into your marriage, it might not have happened.

Robert Greczyn, Jr., chairman and CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, gave an address to the students of the Walker College of Business at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina on the topic of personal responsibility in this “not me” society.

He said, “The sad truth is that many, many people in our society believe they should not be held responsible for the choices they make or the consequences of those choices. We see it on a personal level with the decisions we make in our daily lives. We see it on a professional level with lapses in ethics that dominated the news in recent years. And in my business – the health care business – we see it on an individual and institutional level.”

Greczyn said taking responsibility is a plus for a business,

A culture of personal responsibility is arguably any company’s greatest asset. Who can ever forget the scandals of Enron, Worldcom and Tyco? I can tell you that when you’re the head of a large company – particularly a health insurer – folks are eager to make sure you never forget about those stories – and we never should. What happened in those situations is an excellent example of what happens when the buck stops nowhere. It’s what happens when a company’s leaders respond to a question of “Who’s responsible here?” by shrugging and saying, “Not me.”… A true leader is one who stands up and says, “The buck stops here.” A true leader knows that, no matter where in a company a problem occurs, it’s his or her problem. A true leader never says, “not me.”

He had a simple test for students to think about when they face a situation where responsibility needs to be addressed, “(I)t’s a matter of asking yourself if you would mind if what you’re doing were reported on the front page of the newspaper. If you can’t confidently answer that question, you might want to take a step back and take another look at your situation.” It’s a good test for all of us, whether we’re running a business or not.

Taking responsibility for one’s actions can be a great help in resolving legal actions.  In a negotiation or mediation session, if a plaintiff can honestly concede he or she wasn’t perfect in the situation at issue, and the defendant can honestly admit it made mistakes, both sides can take some responsibility, understand neither is absolutely blameless or at fault, realize at issue are fallible human beings, it can make it easier for parties to step closer to resolution and do their part in righting a wrong.

Finally, it is important to note that taking responsibility for actions gives you more credibility.  If a party can recognize some of their own contribution to an issue, that party gains much more credibility than a party that constantly denies everything and insists that all fault is from someone else.