Think of this expression for one moment: “you should take more responsibility for your work!” If you are like me, this may be an expression that you have used in the past to express your frustration at the paltry efforts of your subordinates, employees or teammates. But let’s think about it for a moment – is responsibility something tangible that somebody can literally pick up and put in a wheelbarrow? Obviously not; so what can we do to help our colleagues raise their game by taking more responsibility?
A Definition
If you type in “responsibility” into your word-processor’s thesaurus, what do you get for the first synonym associated with responsibility? In mine it is “blame”. This was a bit worrying for me so I looked up the Collins thesaurus. Much to my relief “duty” came up as the prime meaning. The Oxford dictionary defines responsibility as “the opportunity or ability to act independently and take decisions without authorisation”. Because responsibility is so strongly associated with blame this is why I feel that organisations have an issue with getting their people to take responsibility. After all, who would be brave enough to take responsibility if they got the blame when it all went wrong? This is especially true in organisations where a blame culture is prevalent.
As a coach I understand that responsibility plays a vital role in improving performance. I will take this view one step further and say that for teams to reach their potential, leaders must ensure that responsibility is balanced among its members. Responsibility disproportionately shared causes resentment and frustration which leads to stress and anxiety among team members. This is one of the major causes of internal friction, leading to low morale and high levels of employee dissatisfaction. If allowed to go unchecked this can result in your key talent becoming so disillusioned that they seek more meaningful and fulfilling work with your competition.
Why It’s Important To Balance Responsibilities
Managers have a duty to share the team’s responsibilities evenly amongst all of its members. However dysfunctional management may be quite happy to ignore the problem and let sleeping dogs lie, because at least the work is getting done. Managers may be tempted to rationalise that the real issue is that “you can’t expect everyone to get on together” and conclude that no problem exists. The difficulty with this approach is that your star performers who will usually take on too much responsibility and eventually this strain will take its toll. You can expect a drop in performance as a first indicator that something is not quite right, followed by prolonged periods of absenteeism. Need I say more?
Understanding The Problem
So how can we balance responsibility fairly? Well before I answer that lets understand the problem a little more. Within a team there are two extreme types of behaviour that can exist in relation to how team members respond to responsibility. On the one hand you can have team players that are overly responsible, and on the other, you have those that avoid responsibility at all cost. With this dynamic there are two inherent problems that every team leader will face as they seek to readdress the balance of responsibility within their team:
Helping overly responsible team players let go of some of their responsibility
Helping the responsibility-shirkers take on their fair share of the team burden.
I am going to conveniently ignore the first problem because in my experience solving this problem requires delicate coaching and helping the overly responsible employee recognise and change their self-limiting patterns.
4 Tips To Help Re-Balance Responsibility
The premise behind this intervention is that responsibility is not something that can be given; it is something that must be taken. This reminds me of a story where someone was clearing out their house and they had a large freezer that they wanted to give away. They placed the freezer outside the house with a sign on it saying “I am in good working order, please take me and use me”. The freezer sat there for days and no one was interested. The owner came up with a brainwave and placed a new sign on the freezer. “For Sale £200 or nearest offer”. That night the freezer was stolen! A simple reframe is sometimes all we need to help people make meaningful change.
Managers can use their power and their guile to “volunteer” some responsibilities away from their overly responsible players. These responsibilities are then made available for redistribution. Here are a few tips to facilitate your thinking as you seek to rebalance responsibility in your team:
Make the responsibility an attractive proposition. Help the employee see that by them taking more responsibility this means they have more control, personal choice and freedom. Taking on responsibility is a key to growth, developing potential and creating a healthier self esteem.
Create and nurture an environment where responsibility is sought after. Make it easy for someone to take responsibility. Offer internal coaching and support while people become familiar with the attitude of responsibility.
Reward the attitude of taking responsibility. Find unique ways of rewarding people for taking responsibility. Recognition is always a good way to do this.
Penalise the blame culture. This is key – when blame surfaces after a setback and it will in those cultures where it is prevalent – be ready to beat it down. Work towards understanding what has gone wrong rather than punishing people because they have had courage to take responsibility in the first place.

Author's Bio: 

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Mark Buchan, one of the UKs top performance coaches who specialises in leadership coaching. His clients have included Rolls Royce, British Telecom, Bombardier Transportation, Nokia, Credit Suisse and many others. To have a free introductory executive coaching session with Mark just click on these links to visit his site and just send him an email requesting your free introductory session.