The Meaning of Responsibility

The Meaning of Responsibility

Blog by Wayne Visser

Part 1 of 13 in Wayne Visser’s Age of Responsibility Blog Series for 3BL Media.

Do you sigh when you hear the word responsibility? Perhaps responsibility is even a dirty word in your vocabulary. Perhaps you associate it with burdens and restrictions; the opposite of being carefree and without obligations. But responsibility doesn’t have to be a chore, or a cage. It all depends how you think about it.

Responsibility is literally what it says – our ability to respond. It is a choice we make – whether to be attentive to our children’s needs, whether to be mindful of the plight of those less fortunate, whether to be considerate of the impact we have on the earth and others. To be responsible is to be proactive in the world, to be sensitive to the interconnections, and to be willing to do something constructive, as a way of giving back.

Responsibility is the counterbalance to rights. If we enjoy the right to freedom, it is because we accept our responsibility not to harm or harass others. If we expect the right to fair treatment, we have a responsibility to respect the rule of law and honour the principle of reciprocity. If we believe in the right to have our basic needs met, we have the responsibility to respond when poverty denies those rights to others.

Taking responsibility, at home or in the workplace, is an expression of confidence in our own abilities, a chance to test our own limits, to challenge ourselves and to see how far we can go. Responsibility is the gateway to achievement. And achievement is the path to growth. Being responsible for something means that we are entrusted with realising its potential, turning its promise into reality. We are the magicians of manifestation, ready to prove to ourselves and to others what can happen when we put our minds to it, if we focus our energies and concentrate our efforts.

Being responsible for someone – another person – is an even greater privilege, for it means that we are embracing our role as caregivers, helping others to develop and flourish. This is an awesome responsibility, in the truest sense, one which should be embraced with gratitude, not reluctantly accepted with trepidation. Responsibility asks no more of us than that we try our best, that we act in the highest and truest way we know. Responsibility is not a guarantee of success, but a commitment to trying.

So why is responsibility seen by many as such an onerous burden? Responsibility becomes onerous when choice is removed from the equation, when we do not realise our freedom to act differently, when we forget that we are allowed to say no. Responsibility becomes pernicious when we take on too much, when we mistakenly think that more is always better, when we take on the guilt and expectations of others. Accepting too many responsibilities is, in fact, irresponsible – for it compromises our ability to respond. Do few things but do them well is the maxim of responsibility.

Being responsible also does not mean doing it all ourselves. Responsibility is a form of sharing, a way of recognising that we’re all in this together. Sole responsibility is an oxymoron …

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Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”info” new_window=”false” link=””]Website[/button] CSR International (website)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=””]Page[/button] The Age of Responsibility (book)

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Visser, W. (2012) The Meaning of Responsibility, Wayne Visser Blog Briefing, 7 February 2012.

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A Typology of Meaning

A Typology of Meaning

Chapter by Wayne Visser

Extract from Making a Difference

Chapter Objectives

  1. To define what is meant by “typology of meaning”;
  2. To introduce a typology of meaning for sustainability managers, including its four proposed types and key features;
  3. To use the interview data to illustrate the applicability and workings of the typology; and
  4. To conclude with a summary of the possible management implications of the typology of meaning for sustainability managers.

For the purposes of my research, “typology of meaning” refers to the classification of typical sources of meaning derived by sustainability managers in their work into four types, each associated with distinctive roles within the organisation.

Introducing the Typology

The typology grew out of a realisation that four of the six sources of meaning in the work of sustainability managers were strongly related to organisational roles. The typology  was included in the Sustainability Managers Research Model (Figure 4.1) that was presented to participants in the Phase 3 follow up interviews and received positive feedback. This section will introduce the four types that I identified, as well as the dynamics of the model.

The Four Types

We can begin by identifying the four types: Expert, Facilitator, Catalyst and Activist. Each type represents a constellation of meaning. It is expected that any individual sustainability manager will embody elements of all of these types, but that the relative influence of each category will differ per individual. Hence, the dominant type can be thought of as a centre of gravity for meaning in the sustainability managers’ work, i.e. the mode of operating in which they feel most comfortable, fulfilled or satisfied.

We can visually represent the idea that people derive meaning from a variety of sources by showing the types as boxes in four quadrants. The relative size of the shaded boxes simply indicates how much meaning the individual derives from each type. Hence, in the case depicted, the individual is perfectly balanced, showing equal preference for each of the types.

An Expert derives relatively more meaning from the constellation of characteristics associated with this type.

There is considerable overlap between the Expert type and specialist input as a source of meaning in work (Chapter 6). Therefore, rather than repeat the illustrative quotations from the interviews in full, Table 8.1 presents typical statements and phrases indicative of Expert type sustainability managers.

These quotes illustrate some of the themes that characterise the way Experts find their meaning, namely by engaging with projects or systems, giving expert input, focusing on technical excellence, seeking uniqueness through specialisation, and pride in problem solving abilities.

Characteristics of the Expert

  • Aligned to specialist input as a source of meaning;
  • Concerned mainly with the individual level;
  • Focuses on personal development;
  • Derives satisfaction from delivering quality through their work;
  • Skills are mainly technical in nature;
  • Emphasise specialist knowledge; and
  • The legacy they wish to leave behind is successful work projects …

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[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”info” new_window=”false” link=””]Page[/button] Making a Difference (book)

Cite this chapter

Visser, W. (2008) A Typology of Meaning, In Making a Difference: Purpose-Inspired Leadership for Corporate Sustainability and Responsibility, Saarbrücken: VDM, 218-237.

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Meaning, Work and Social Responsibility

Meaning, Work and Social Responsibility

Article by Wayne Visser

Surprisingly little has been written about the search for meaning in a workplace or business context, and nothing, in my knowledge, has made the explicit link to corporate social responsibility (CSR). It is surprising, partly because meaning has been a serious topic of research and application for at least fifty years now, following the seminal work of Viktor Frankl and others, as have the fields of industrial psychology and CSR. But it is more surprising still, simply because work is where we spend about a third of lives. If meaning cannot be found in the workplace, our ability to lead a fulfilling life is seriously impaired.

The importance of understanding how work can contribute to meaning in life seems more critical now than ever before. Anecdotal evidence is mounting that people in the West are increasingly feeling a sense of existential crisis in their working lives. On the one hand, they are expecting more from their work experience, including that it will nurture personal development and self actualisation. On the other hand, they are finding the capitalist, corporate model of work to be lacking in a meaningful higher purpose, or to put it another way, the modern workplace and economy is devoid of a sense of soul.

Some may argue that this growing frustration in the Western workplace is a vindication of Karl Marx’s (1975) concept of the alienation of labour through capitalism, whereby work “does not belong to his essential being; that he therefore does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind”.

Modern social commentators like Charles Handy are less extreme, arguing for reformation rather than revolution. In his book, The Hungry Spirit, which is subtitled “Beyond Capitalism – A Quest for Purpose in the Modern World”, Handy calls for capitalism to embrace the notion of social capital (and I would add ecological capital as well) in addition to the more traditional economic capital. He also emphasises the need for citizen companies, which demonstrate greater accountability and a restored balance between the rights and responsibilities of business.

The question remains, however, whether these ideas have any grounding in the theory of meaning on the one hand, and management theory on the other hand. According to Frankl’s logopsychology and logophilosophy, work – doing, or as he referred to it, realising creative values – constitutes one of three paths to meaning. “As long as creative values are in the forefront of the life task,” he noted, “their actualisation generally coincides with a person’s work”. In fact, his other two paths to meaning may be equally applicable in the work situation, even if less common, namely being, or the experience of values (e.g. love, truth, beauty), and perceiving, or the adoption of constructive attitudes (especially in the face of suffering).

Frankl’s notions of work as ideally being an expression of a life task are not dissimilar to iconic industrial psychologist Abraham Maslow’s conclusions about self-actualising individuals. Writing …

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[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”download” new_window=”false” link=””]Pdf[/button] Meaning, Work and Social Responsibility (article)

Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”info” new_window=”false” link=””]Page[/button] Making a Difference (book)

Cite this article

Visser, W. (2003) Meaning, Work and Social Responsibility. Positive Living E-Zine, International Network on Personal Meaning, September.

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