The Responsibility Virus
Basic Books, 286, $41.50
Getting subordinates to take responsibility in the appropriate situation can be a mind-boggling pursuit. Often we find ourselves lurching into frustrating tugs of war, where they take more responsibility than we want and then take absolutely no responsibility when we are hoping – and perhaps insisting – they do.
If you struggle with that dilemma, a book that received little attention by Rotman Dean of Management Roger Martin when published a decade ago may be worth your while. It was his first book and, he now regrets, is a little more complex than his later works. But the ideas within it were – and are – valuable.
He outlines a cycle that may be familiar to you. It starts when a leader acts in what Martin terms a “heroic” manner, taking complete responsibility for something rather than delegating to subordinates. That only encourages passivity in followers, who feel left out.
As the leader notes the passivity, he or she grabs more responsibility, feeling irritated at subordinates for shirking their duties. That cycle continues, with irritation escalating into anger, until the leader eventually takes on more responsibility than can be handled effectively.
That sets the leader up to fail. As the leader senses the failure looming ahead, he or she abruptly turns around, switching to an under-responsible stance in order to be insulated from what’s ahead. That jolts followers into their own extreme reaction. They flip to over-responsibility, making sure that they are never again put in a position of being dependent on a leader who lets them down.
It can easily become an endless loop, driven by failure. “Failure often begets failure,” he notes. “It’s personal, very personal. But at the same time, it’s universal.”
Behind this virus, he explains, are four governing values that guide how we interpret and deal with the world. They were first identified by Chris Argyris, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School:
• to win and not lose in any interaction;
• to always maintain control of the situation at hand;
• to avoid any embarrassment of any kind; and
• to stay rational throughout.
“When we’re operating from the governing values, failure looms so large as a threat that we try to avoid it at almost any cost. When we can’t avoid it, we try to cover it up or deny it,” Martin says.
The flood of fear we experience as we face failure short circuits our conscious, deliberative thought processes. Instead of the rationality we need at such critical times, we fall into “fight or flight” mode. In the face of failure, the fight response is to try to win by stretching our level of responsibility higher than we are capable of handling.
We want to control our own destiny so we pre-empt others from seizing control. We want to avoid embarrassment so we assume responsibility quietly, without talking to others, since broaching the subject might expose our underlying belief that others are incompetent and subject our decision to the critical assessment of others.
Under the tyranny of the governing values, collaboration is a dangerous prospect – something to be avoided. “If I work in partnership with someone else, the other person may screw up, which would make me part of a losing effort. In a partnership, I am no longer in control. Worse, I may have to be part of all sorts of potentially embarrassing conversations I would love to avoid,” he says.
He outlines various methods to handle this situation, both in group situations and one-on-one interactions with specific employees. A prime method is the choice structuring process. It’s aimed at teams that don’t get full participation because members are afraid of losing in a clash of ideas. It produces robust and compelling choices, without violating the governing values, which would trigger the responsibility virus:
• Frame choice: The group must look beyond the problem or issue at hand to discern the type of tradeoff it embodies and the type of choice the problem requires. If any member of the group feels a certain choice is important it is included, to avoid embarrassment, sulking, and under-responsibility.
• Brainstorm options: Once the underlying choice is clear, determine options for action. “In this step, it is critical to create a climate that discourages passive, under-responsible behaviour by welcoming options enthusiastically. It is also important to discourage over-responsible behaviour, helping the most likely perpetrators recognize the whole group is engaged and they do not have the right to take charge,” he writes.
• Specify conditions: Before you can decide if any of the options can make the cut, you need to specify the conditions that must be met in order for your end goals to be met. Work back from that end, figuring out through reverse-engineering the conditions required for success. This step allows people with reservations toward a particular option to speak out.
• Identify barriers to choice: Now you ask members which conditions they think are least likely to hold true. This encourages skeptical members to raise concerns. “And once the concern is raised, the group must take such issues seriously,” he insists.
• Design tests: Once key barriers are identified, they must be tested. This might involve a survey or speaking to suppliers or any other check the group considers valid. “The most skeptical member of the group is the most critical for test design. Typically, he or she will have the highest standard of proof for the test,” Martin notes.
• Conduct analysis: Again, make sure the skeptics feel the process is fair as you move to analysis.
• Make choice: Usually this is the toughest step in group decision-making, but your choice structuring and analysis may make it anticlimactic. The test results indicate what your best option is.
While that will help in group decision-making, Martin also looks at how to fight the insidious growth of the responsibility virus in one-on-one conversations on the distribution of responsibility for decisions. He lays out six levels of overall responsibility for solving a problem, from the eyes of a subordinate:
• Level 6: This lowest rung of the ladder involves taking on no responsibility, and dumping the problem onto the lap of someone else, usually your superior.
• Level 5: Here you ask the other person to solve the problem but make it clear that you will watch and learn for the next time. This indicates a willingness to share more responsibility in future. It indicates the other party might not have to assume responsibility forever. “This small signal can help stave off a responsibility virus infection,” he says.
• Level 4: At this level, you describe a problem to the other party and ask for help in structuring it. This signals you don’t want the other person to take over and make the choice. You want to collaborate, sharing in responsibility.
• Level 3: Generate options for the other party but ask the other person to make the choice. The subordinate indicates there is a problem, outlines choices, and asks for the boss’s opinion.
• Level 2: Provide options to the other party along with your own recommendation or choice. The subordinate is indicating more confidence in his or her abilities but still shies away from total responsibility.
• Level 1: Consider options and make the decision, informing the other party subsequently. “In a boss-subordinate relationship, when the subordinate constantly operates successfully on a Level 1 mode, it is a signal that the person should no longer be a subordinate,” he asserts.
It’s clear that level 6 is a lousy place for the boss and subordinate to be but so is level 1. Martin says you want to be in levels 2 to 5, avoiding all-or-nothing approaches. For each discrete assignment, you need to diagnose the proper level of responsibility for the individual. When things go wrong, studying the situation through the responsibility ladder approach may help to clarify why the failure occurred.
The book is not easy going. But it does help to illuminate a common workplace issue – virus, if you will – and steps for inoculating yourself and your subordinates.
Harvey Schachter is the Globe and Mail columnist for Managing Books and the Monday Morning Manager, and a freelance writer specializing in management issues.