Why don’t they take responsibility??

A couple of weeks ago it was CIPD NAP – an amazing event on the CIPD calendar! All organised from start to finish by volunteers, all of whom have a huge passion for making work better, and created for a community of generous, friendly, positive and helpfully curious delegates. But no event is perfect. Nothing in life is. And something which wasn’t so perfect on the Friday night prompted a connection for me back into work and a challenge I often hear from leaders…….

Why don’t they take responsibility??

At the gala dinner on Friday night there was some serious squealy feedback from one of the mics. And it went on for quite some time. It was really unpleasant!

In response to that, the majority of the room sat with hands over ears, screwing up their faces, giggling at the ongoing discomfort.

One person (thank you David D’Souza) got up and helped to solve the problem and make it stop (i.e. turn off the mic!).

So why didn’t anybody else do this? Why did we all just sit there in discomfort?

One part of it might have been connected to this fable…..

A man walking down the street encountered folks sitting on their porch and a dog lying on the porch whining and groaning.

He asked the folks why the dog was acting that way . . .

“Because he’s lying on a nail” they replied.

“Why doesn’t he get up?” the man asked.

“Because it’s not hurting bad enough” they replied. . . . .

The other reason might have been that we didn’t see it as our job. We’re just delegates here. We’re not responsible for the event. We’re not in charge.

And this realisation surprised me. I see myself as a responsibility-taking, proactive person. And I am. Mostly. But clearly not always because I also just sat there. It didn’t even cross my mind to get up and help. I just kept looking around…..(while screwing up my face)…. at the man on the decks, in the direction of others who I thought were in charge, waiting for someone else to make a move.

I often hear leaders feeling frustrated that their teams don’t take responsibility. That people wait for “management” to tell or ask.

So what’s missing? What stops us taking responsibility?

Lack of clarity of responsibilities and permissions is a huge thing. How clear are you and your team about who does what, who’s responsible for what.

If people don’t choose or aren’t given clear responsibility, nobody will do it. “We’re all responsible for clearing up in the kitchen” often means nobody does it.

This podcast with Lisa Gill interviewing Tom Nixon is very interesting on this topic. Tom’s a fan and creator of workplaces where people are autonomous and responsibility-taking, and yet even he acknowledges that some people still need to be delegated to in the more traditional way.

As much as great moves are being made by more organisations to become less command & control, the vast majority are still in that place because it feels safer, because we think by controlling things we’ll be more able to provide a return to whoever’s invested in the business.

And guess what, if you keep controlling, people will keep not taking responsibility because they don’t feel confident or capable enough to think and act for themselves.

So in the absence of explicit clarity and permissions and in the presence of command and control, we assume that the person in charge will take charge. And we assume that if we step in to take charge we’ll be in trouble: for stepping on their toes, that it might be career limiting, that we’re acting above our station, that it’s impolite in some way. The craziness of this is that often the people who think these things about stepping in or up are in fact working with leaders who would LOVE someone else to take more responsibility. But nobody’s talking about it.

This doesn’t have to be seismic career-shifting stuff. It might be “is it OK if I start the team meeting off if you’re not here”. It might be “Tell me when you’ve taken the last teabag so I can get some more”. Or “Go direct to Bobby in the Sales team to tell him if you get a query like this because he’s tracking frequency”. Or “This change/info is for everyone to know so chat to your colleagues to make sure people have heard it”.

To start to move away from our automatic assumptions about who’s in charge and what we can or can’t do, we need to get it out there. We need some quick and simple conversations.

As a leader, what would you like people to take responsibility for? Why does this matter to the business?  Have you told your team what these things are and why they mater? Have you asked who might be interested?

As an employee, what would you like to take responsibility for? Have you told anyone that?

So take responsibility and choose to change the status quo where you are.


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