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Who’s responsible?

It’s almost a cliché: You’re in a meeting with colleagues, discussing a particular task or project, and question arises in a snap: “Who’s responsible?

There are many reasons why we hear this question so often, and most of them are pretty good ones. When it comes to getting things done in any company, employees do, after all, need to know who’s accountable for what. As well, meetings take time away from actually getting work done, and everyone prefers well-structured, to-the-point meetings to drawn-out, meandering ones. Cutting to the chase and asking “Who’s responsible?” can sometimes save time.

But people often ask “Who’s responsible?” for more negative reasons—they want to know whom they can blame if something goes wrong, and they want to try to dodge responsibility themselves. Huge workloads are the norm these days, and few people are looking to take on more duties—particularly anything that carries any risk. For some people, the answer to “Who’s responsible?” mean the difference between tuning out (“Phew! Bob’s responsible—I can stop listening now”) and starting some fancy footwork to try to avoid being charged with another task or project.

Needless to say, this isn’t the most productive approach to the question. So what can you do lead the conversation in the most positive direction the next time you’re in a meeting and someone asks, “Who’s responsible?”

First off, clarify exactly what it is that needs to be done. What are the concrete tasks involved? What information needs to be gathered before these can be accomplished? This helps everyone present get a clear of what is before them.

Then, instead of seeking to name a single person, name the team that is responsible. Emphasise that reaching the goal is a group effort; all members of the team have a role in ensuring that the job gets done.

This simple change in approach can make a big difference when someone asks, “Who’s responsible?” It encourages a spirit of collaboration instead of making people feel singled out, which in turn makes them more inclined to contribute. More people contributing means the generation of more ideas and an increased sense of ownership of the tasks at hand. This undermines the sort of us-versus-them mentality that encourages employees to try to avoid involvement.

Sometimes the way to get the best out of somebody is to demand the best of everybody. Who’s responsible? Everyone is.