I talk to many people about the concept of responsibility at work, especially as so few people see it as their responsibility to make sure things happen, trotting out the good old “it’s not in my job description” excuse.
Obviously, if no-one in a workplace wants to take responsibility for anything — or, perhaps worse, no-one really even knows who should be responsible for what — that can be a problem. Equally, if anyone at any level in an organisation feels that responsibility is being thrust upon them in a way that is unjust, all that results in is resistance.
How to deal with this? One great tool I’ve come across is called simply the Responsibility Process, currently championed by Christopher Avery. It describes six levels of responsibility avoidance, and one level that actually involves taking responsibility — for yourself.
What does taking responsibility look like? It means taking ownership of your actions, not blaming what you’ve done (or declined to do) on other people or the environment in which you find yourself. Seems pretty straightforward, right? So I decided actually to do it. And one of the things I started to notice once I actively took responsibility for myself was how many people do, in fact, do the opposite. When something gets screwed up, it’s always the computer’s fault, or the children’s, or another employee’s, or the weather’s . . . and on and on.
People avoid taking responsibility because the very concept threatens them. It can open them up to criticism, or worse. In a threatening environment, taking responsibility can result in more than being seen as brave or foolish; it can actively lead to a kind of inertia in which nothing’s being produced because everyone’s avoiding taking the risk of doing anything. If you avoid a task or project, you avoid the chances of failing or being wrong.
There are two things I try to remember when dealing with people like these:
- I need to learn tolerance for those who aren’t as far along this particular path as I might be — I’m sure that I have areas of behaviour that infuriate others, and I need to remember that when I encounter responsibility-shirkers and feel my temperature rising.
- 2. I need to ask myself how I can try to encourage others to begin taking responsibility for themselves. How can I interest them in wanting to take responsibility?
There’s a risk to taking ownership of our actions, but there’s a cost to declining to do so as well — a cost to avoiding, and to refusing to confront why we want to avoid things. We can start to address this simply by starting out each workday with a reminder: “I am responsible for myself and my actions; my actions make a difference, and I want them to.” Looking at Avery’s process, and trying to understand more about why we and those around us may be chary of responsibility, can be a first step toward breaking that paralysing cycle.