A Scientific Approach to Leadership
and Management Development

"Leadership Matters"
— A Management Newsletter —

Performance Matters: Who is Responsible for Results?

As a manager, you know who your "responsible" people are — the people who get things done despite the obstacles. They seem to be driven, with an inherent sense of responsibility. Where does that sense of responsibility come from, and how can you encourage it in others?

Responsibility is a useful but often misunderstood concept in management. It is often incorrectly linked to the character or values of an individual. In business contexts, responsibility aligns people's actions with the specific business results required. A responsible person remains focused, active and committed despite obstacles or pressures to stop.

Responsibility is Not Accountability
Responsibility is often confused with accountability. Both responsibility and accountability are required in a work environment, but they are not the same. Accountability is a set of expectations one person creates for another, while responsibility is a set of expectations a person creates for him- or herself.

A second distinction is that, since accountability is created by one person for another, it can and must be communicated. That is, accountability must be clarified with description and explanation. Assigning clear accountabilities is a requirement of management, yet it is often very difficult. In order to establish accountabilities, managers must communicate what needs to be accomplished, not WHAT is to be done, or HOW it should be done. When the people doing the work understand what they must accomplish, THEY can they figure out how to do what needs to be done.

Responsibility, on the other hand, may not always be communicated. It's an "inside job" — an individual accepts responsibility him- or herself. They may not even rationalize their sense of responsibility — they simply act upon it. When someone accepts responsibility, they'll figure out how to accomplish what has been assigned. The greater the sense of responsibility, the more committed the person will be to figuring out the best way to do what needs to be done.

Another distinction is that accountability can be formally assigned, while responsibility cannot. The communication of expected outcomes is a normal and necessary part of effective management. The acceptance of responsibility is a normal part of individual life. This leads to a central question:

If accountability and responsibility are necessities in management and for working individuals, why are these two concepts so difficult to reconcile in the work environment?

The Manager's Dilemma: Letting Go of Responsibility
One answer lies in what Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, called having "the courage to be clear." Making accountabilities clear is not easy. Yet if the accountabilities are not clear, people can't take responsibility, act effectively and achieve results. Would you take responsibility for something you didn't understand clearly and explicitly?

Another answer involves the manager's own sense of responsibility. Before other people can take responsibility, the manager must let go of it. If the manager retains the responsibility for accomplishing the outcomes, direct reports can't take it away or accept it themselves. A manager with a strong sense of responsibility can inadvertently interfere with other people's desire and ability to take responsibility.

If the manager retains the responsibility by "taking the work back," over-directing or micro-managing, direct reports are powerless. Few people have the courage or capability to defend their work against their boss. So they can't take responsibility if the manager won't let go of it.

So how do you, as an manager, encourage responsibility effectively? First, communicate the accountabilities — the expected outcomes — as clearly and specifically as possible. Second, keep people focused on those accountabilities by providing objective feedback on their progress and results. Third, don't tell them how to do the work. Make sure they understand what must be accomplished, and let them decide how best to proceed.

Let go. Focus on the necessary outcomes. If the work gets done and the outcomes are achieved using the resources allocated, how they do the work is secondary to the results. And the more you enable people to take responsibility, the more the results will matter — to them.

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