How Teaching Responsibility Translates to Higher Productivity

Business colleagues shaking hands in office

I want to dispel the myth that responsibility is an inherent personality characteristic. Responsibility is learnable — my client’s results prove it over and over again. With the advances of the last twenty-five years responsibility is a directly observable, learnable, and teachable mental process anyone can understand and master.

When leaders treat responsibility as a personality trait (or flaw), then you assume it is nearly impossible to alter it and you must do your best to control others, hence you design controlling management structures and processes. But when you understand how responsibility actually works in the mind, then you can equip yourself with its power, and tap into it to leverage every other tool, skill, and process in your organization.

Ownership Mindset Missing In Action

Thinking that new tools and skills will increase productivity can frequently be a waste of resources for companies — the real problem isn’t a lack of problem-solving tools and skills. The real problem is a severe absence of problem-ownership that prompts someone to relate to the situation, learn from it, and choose a resourceful response. When people don’t feel a sense of ownership for problems, they don’t engage the abilities they posses.

You have the ability to directly and effectively confront this lack of ownership in your team and across your company. When teaching how to take responsibility, I find that once responsibility is mastered, people resourcefully employ all of the dormant tools the firm has invested in. Now that’s leverage!

Corporations are spending billions of dollars on the wrong investment — accountability — when they could be spending it on building sustainable cultures by teaching responsibility.

Most executives these days expend energy on strategic goals and objectives for building a culture of accountability. The focus of these efforts is on doing a better job of holding others to account. When I look at these investments, I see a focus on the external–i.e., outside of themselves–on attempting to do a better job detailing what must be done and then following up to make sure it is done, and finally ensuring there are meaningful consequences for achieving or failing to achieve the stated accountabilities.

The 3 reasons why companies loose money when they focus on accountability:

1. Tightening Control Results in Less Responsibility
Tightening behavioral control begets resistance and irresponsible behavior. Improving the mechanics of the external (accountability management) without understanding the dynamics of the internal (responsibility, or feelings of ownership) frequently creates the opposite effect. The more I attempt to control your performance, the less responsibility you will feel for your situation. You might expend a lot of energy creating some result out of a sense of obligation, but that’s different than a true sense of ownership.

2. We’re All Experts at ‘Looking Good’
There are many ways all of us successfully account for failed performance every day in order to get rewarded anyway. We blame others, or we blame the circumstances (“I got put on a bad team”), or we take pity on ourselves in hopes that others will pity us too, or we claim that we followed the instructions to the letter and still things didn’t work out. All of these claims compel many managers to accept the explanation and let the subordinate off the hook. With a strong desire to keep them on board and motivated, coupled with your own feelings of guilt about your contribution to their failure, you grant the annual raise or bonus.

3. Responsibility Trumps Accountability
My research shows that responsibility (the internal process) trumps accountability (the external process). All the resources in the world spent understanding, doling out, and managing accountability don’t matter in an environment where people don’t demonstrate a sense of ownership when things don’t go as planned. Where performance is concerned, responsibility is the more powerful and primary element. Performance studies consistently show that when high performance is achieved, people have stepped up and accomplished more than they were asked to do. The only state of mind that produces resourceful responses is Responsibility.

Keys to Responsibility

My quest to support clients in rapidly developing more resourceful responses to problems uncovered three keys that collectively provide a prescription for mastering Responsibility: Intention, Awareness, and Confront.

Intention
The first key to unlocking and mastering responsibility is to clearly and powerfully intend to operate as much as possible from a mental position of responsibility. Without this key, the others don’t matter. That’s why it’s first.

We can effectively support leaders and followers at every level to develop a thirst for, a belief in, and a shared value for thinking and acting responsibly.

Awareness
The second key to unlocking and mastering responsibility is to develop an ever-increasing awareness of the Responsibility Process™ operating in your thoughts, language, and actions. Unlocking and mastering responsibility means overcoming the temptation to behave irresponsibly, and that requires self-awareness.

Note that developing self-awareness also represents the state-of-the-art in leadership development.

Confront
The third key is to face the truth. I call this confront, which means to face. As a key to unlocking and mastering responsibility it means to face yourself, examine the situation, and see what’s true about how you are or are not responding resourcefully. The purpose of confronting yourself is to see the truth of the situation and generate new responses to it. Effectively confronting yourself always leads to growth, expanded perspectives, and change.

Most business cultures are not very good at supporting this ability. In fact they support the opposite behaviors of denying, avoiding, defending, and resisting. However, the good news is that this sill can be cultivated in your culture.

Redefine responsibility

The lack of responsibility at work and in society is a fundamental problem. Like solutions to other fundamental problems such as quality and service that are transforming industry, the solution is to redefine responsibility first for yourself and then for your team.

When people learn and apply what I call the the Keys to Responsibility™ to everyday upsets, they start eliminating wasted thoughts and wasted behaviors that are chewing up resources and adding no value to the top or bottom line. Remove them and productivity soars.

Highly responsible people — those who are self-aware and intend to confront themselves about the truth of a problem instead of disowning it — do not remain very long with a blaming, justifying, shaming, obligating employer. Highly responsible people are drawn to employers who cherish that quality and grant freedom, choice, and power.

I encourage you to work on creating that kind of mindset in yourself, and that kind of culture in your company.

As always, let me know what you think by sharing a comment below.

Christopher Avery, Ph.D. wrote the popular book Teamwork Is An Individual Skill: Getting Your Work Done When Sharing Responsibility — which Fortune Magazine claimed is the only teamwork book worth reading. He is a recognized authority on how individual and shared responsibility works in the mind and an advisor to leaders worldwide. Master leadership or build a responsible team (or family) with The Leadership Gift Program for Leaders.




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5 Responses to How Teaching Responsibility Translates to Higher Productivity

  1. On the Linked-In discussion group Leaders in Project Management in Phoenix, AZ, I was asked the following:

    Don Thoren says: “I agree with your views on responsibility vs. accountability. My question this time is whether responsibility is learnable without the presence of character? Character is usually shaped through out a person’s early years up through age 12-15 and those with character seem to be more responsible. So, do you think you can teach/develop responsibility to a person of limited character? If character is deficient, does responsibly behavior then not rely mostly upon rewards and punishment?”

    Good question Don. It’s a bit of a chicken/egg issue. And your question assumes responsibility is primarily a personality trait or characteristic — the way we’ve viewed responsibility for eons. My view is that we now have insight into how the transient mindset of responsibility is reached (or avoided). For me, simply saying that character development explains it all is taking a step backwards. I think that even people who have made a lot of poor choices for a long time can wake up and see the connection between their positions of mind (lay blame, justify, shame, obligation, and quit) and the results they are or are not getting in life.

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  4. I love the article and agree completly with the assertions made regarding learning and encouraging responcibility. As an Agile Coach and Scrum Master I constantly am dealing with the ‘team’ is responsible when I know teams are constructs and it is persons that either are or are not responsible for their actions and attitudes. Thanks for this excellent clarification and direction.

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