Recovering from an infection of the responsibility virus requires us to change our mindset and to do it on faith.
The over-responsible party tends to see the under-responsible party as lazy, incompetent, happy to ride coat tails, or simply useless. The do not trust the under-responsible party and feel justified in their need to take control.
The under-responsible party tends to see the over-responsible party as a control freak, a know-it-all, and an overbearing glory hound.
Both parties’ perspectives are reinforced by the static conversation of responsibility which naturally pushes the two of them to opposite ends of the responsible spectrum. In order to begin breaking the cycle, one or both of the parties need to drop these false perspectives and reassess the others’ actions with a new frame of mind.
In my case, I had to put the past behind me and give my team another chance to show me that they can stand up to their tasks and win. This implies a risk of losing, however. It is possible that my mistrust was merited and they simply drop the ball against. However, nothing will ever improve if I don’t alter my own perceptions and give them that opportunity.
The responsibility ladder
The responsibility ladder is a way of producing black and white classifications out of grey. Most people look at responsibility as a binary situation.
- I am responsible; or
- I am not responsible
This does not leave any room for the possibility that a person might be a bit under qualified to be fully responsible but whose skills will atrophy at their current level of responsibility.
By making more levels we have an opportunity to share responsibility while continuing to maintain clear division of roles and responsibility. In my post titled, Learning to Manage: Recovering from a crash, I spoke about initiative levels.
- wait until told (lowest initiative)
- ask what to do
- recommend, then take resulting action
- act, but advise at once
- act on own, then routinely report (highest initiative)
The Responsibility Virus presents the responsibility ladder as something similar with these levels.
- Consider options and make decision, informing other party subsequently
- Provide options to other party along with own recommendation on choice
- Generate options for the other party and ask other party to make choice
- Describe problem to other party and ask for specific help in structuring it
- Ask other party to solve problem but make it clear that you will watch and learn next time
- Drop problem on other party’s desk and signal helplessness
Each of these are a bit different but both of them provide language for framing our expectations. I can instruct a subordinate that I expect them to act no lower than a specific level. This gives them a clear understanding of what types of problems to bring to me and how. It is also a growth opportunity. A way of informing someone that you think they are at responsibility level 3 and that you would like to coach them up to level 2.
With these tools or any variation of them, suddenly we are in a situation where we can establish shared responsibility and provide a clear path for growth. Suddenly the grey area where we work together becomes black and white. There is no room for an under-responsible party to believe that sharing the load with the over-responsible party means that they are off the hook. Conversely the over-responsible party has a structure of restraint; an understanding of how much space they need to give the other party and what line not to cross.
I already began using this tool in my mid-year reviews for my full time employees by establishing minimum expectations of initiative. Those discussions were very fruitful because each of my direct reports reacted differently. One very clearly told me that past guidance was in direct conflict with my expectations. This opened up a transparent conversation where I was able to acknowledge the past but squashing those traditions in favor of my current expectations. Without this tool to frame those discussions, some of my subordinates would continue to operate under a false understanding of what I expect of them.