What do you mean, “responsibility”?

Question never asked

Throughout my career, I have sat at dozens of recruitments, both as the recruiter and as a candidate. I have been introduced to my new jobs and introduced others to theirs. I have evaluated my subordinates and have been evaluated as a staff member. I have completed management and leadership courses and run such courses for others. 

But no matter what role I played and what was the seniority of my post, I have never been asked – or asked: “what does responsibility mean to you?”, “what would being responsible look like?”. Not once. 

It turns out I am not an exception: I checked with my colleagues in leadership positions and none of them has heard or used these questions either. It is also overlooked in much leadership literature. 

That’s because, a colleague suggested, we believe we know the meaning of responsibility, and we assume people we work with understand the term more or less the same way we do. So, we don’t see a need to reflect on our individual and collective understanding of what being responsible looks like. 

Let’s take a look at the Oxford Dictionary definitions of “responsibility”: 

1. The state or fact of having a duty to deal with something or of having control over someone. 2. The state or fact of being accountable or to blame for something. 2.1. A moral obligation to behave correctly towards or in respect of. 3. The opportunity or ability to act independently and take decisions without authorization. 3.1. A thing which one is required to do as part of a job, role, or legal obligation.

Which ones do you believe are the essence of leadership responsibility? Are these the same for the colleagues in your team? How do you know? When you think about it, our assumptions about the meaning of responsibility are impossible to prove right or wrong if we never take time to verify them for ourselves and with our colleagues.

Responsibility as controlling and commanding

Imagine an organization A where top leaders see responsibility primarily as having control over people and what they are required to do as part of their job descriptions, and holding subordinates to account when things go wrong or punishing them for not doing something. The latter, more often than not, with a fair share of assigning blame.

What would working for the organization A be like? We can picture a command-and-control environment where the top leaders make all decisions with little or no input from their team members. They dictate the work methods and processes and do not encourage creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. Work is highly and rigidly structured, and rules and procedures are very important and strictly enforced. Employees and teams are rarely trusted with decisions or important tasks. In turn, they are more likely to follow instructions out of fear than because of motivation, commitment and trust in leadership. 

With this understanding of responsibility, organization A would be a Douglas McGregor’s Theory X structure, with close supervision and comprehensive control systems, reinforced by a hierarchical structure. It would prefer an autocratic leadership style. 

Several studies suggest that this leadership style can be beneficial in crisis or highly task-specific situations (I would still argue that not in all such situations) and can bring short-term gains. But there is also ample evidence of the harm it can do to organizations and companies if applied long-term as the prevalent model. 

One is increased staff turnover – some studies show that where the autocratic style is the only one used, the risk of employees leaving increases three-fold. Another one is the loss of cohesion and increased demotivation in teams. It also does not support organizational learning, stifles employees’ proactive attitudes, and limits innovation and creativity. 

Taken to the extreme, equaling responsibility with control and command, and with a focus on tasks instead of on people, can lead to a business downfall. The near-collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland, studies show, was largely caused by the “culture of fear” instilled by its autocratic leader Fred Goodwin. 

Daniel Goleman named this leadership style “coercive” or “directive”. His research shows that people who work for this type of a leader lose their sense of responsibility. Which is hardly a surprise: one of underlying assumptions in a Theory X organization is that employees avoid responsibility for what they do.

Responsibility as a shared commitment

Now picture an organization B where an understanding of responsibility, shared across teams, is about a moral obligation to behave correctly, a state of being accountable, and the opportunity to act independently and take decisions without authorization. 

What would working for the organization B be like? We can imagine a place where integrity is an essential part of the working culture. From those in formal leadership positions to staff in support functions, people are committed to do the right things for the right reasons. Being accountable means that employees are all mutually responsible for the organizational results, so people are willing to support each other. They are trusted to make good choices and empowered to come up with new ideas and make them happen. The staff has a strong sense of belonging, and their voice matters in making organizational decisions.

Using McGregor’s typology, with this understanding of responsibility organization B would be a Theory Y structure, with employees – motivated by positive incentives – who are doing their best to achieve organizational goals they believe in. They are engaged in problem-solving and are supported and encouraged to self-direct and self-control. Organization B would prefer a distributed leadership model. 

A recurrent view in leadership literature is that this leadership style would not work with people who are – as Theory X has it – lazy, unreliable and not interested in investing themselves in work (I would still question a possible implicit bias built into this reasoning). Many experts also say that this style would not work in manufacturing environments where employees at assembly lines do highly repetitive tasks. 

But examples such as the New United Motors Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI) joint venture GM – Toyota plant tell a different story. Under the 1963 – 1984 GM Theory X management, the factory was plagued by over 20% rates of absenteeism, frequent strikes, acts of sabotage and very low production quality, gaining a reputation of the worst workforce in the US and eventually closing down. Toyota entered the joint venture to re-open the plant, with 85% of the same employees. It focused on building a culture of respect for people, and cultivated teamwork and trust, involvement and professional growth of all employees. In just a couple of years, absenteeism fell to 3% and productivity doubled. With staff suggestions for improvements taken into account, quality rose to new highs and work satisfaction skyrocketed.  

Studies show that where people come first, employees can grow and develop, and are engaged in decisions, action and problem-solving, organizations have better performance and results. We see this in organizations of all types and sizes, from Apple and a biotechnology firm Genencor International to the Mayo Clinic healthcare research NGO.

In Goleman’s studies, organization B would use a combination of democratic, affiliative and coaching leadership styles. His research shows that when used purposefully, these styles build organizational flexibility, stimulate innovation, foster employees’ personal and professional development, create harmonious teams and increase morale. They also drive up a sense of responsibility across teams. 

Words matter. How responsibility is understood in organizations has a fundamental importance for what leadership practices they apply, how they are perceived by their employees and by the society, and how likely they are to succeed long-term in the complex and interconnected world that is changing at a pace and scale never seen before. An investment into building a shared understanding of responsibility in your organization can go a really long way. 

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