Too many leaders feel that taking responsibility for others means essentially doing their work for them. Truly responsible leaders enable others to act responsibly rather than enabling a worker's bad habits by compensating for them. It's not always easy to know how to help an under-performer take ownership of his or her job, but following a few key practices can make a big difference. Consider the following example.
Tara Eddy had worked for ELS Electric for 30 years—first as an electrician, then as a sales supervisor, and finally as the vice-president of operations. In the last year, her productivity had declined and her work was sloppy. "She's stopped taking responsibility for the company," the recently-hired president explained. "I know she's been with us for a long time—I wish I had another choice—but I have to let her go," he concluded. Was the president acting responsibly as a leader by firing her? After all, Tara had been with the company for 30 years and he had only recently been hired to direct her. What would you do? As it happens, the president had enough misgivings about his decision to consult my company before acting.
I arranged a one-on-one meeting with Tara. Rather than criticizing her for her lagging performance, I offered Tara a chance to gain ownership over her work life. If she took it, I knew there was hope for her improvement. "Tara," I said in a one-on-one meeting, "I know you've had a long career with this company, and I would like to hear more about your work history. Can you tell me about your first-ever job experience?" Tara knew her work had been suffering and had expected to be upbraided or fired in this meeting. She was surprised by this open invitation to talk about her work history instead. "My first job ever? You probably don't mean the one I had when I was seven?" she joked. "Actually, I do," I replied; I was interested in getting to know Tara and understanding her interests and motivations.
As it turned out, as the only child of a disabled mother Tara had started working at a small grocery store as a child. Eventually Tara took on more responsibilities at the store, including handy work. When she became licensed as an electrician at age 23 she went to work for ELS Electric. Now at age 54, Tara wondered if she ever really wanted the promotions she had been given due to her seniority. "Honestly, I'm not sure I was ever suited to being a vice-president. I was much happier doing electrical work—I like that type of small-scale problem-solving," she said. After listening to Tara, I recommended that she be re-hired as an electrician—a lower pressure job with less pay that would allow her to do what she liked best. Tara was delighted—the pay mattered less to her than being personally satisfied with her work. Responsible leaders strive to improve the work lives and achievement of their subordinates by helping them take responsibility for their jobs or helping them understand what stands in the way of their success. Below are three lessons toward building a responsibility-driven culture.
The first step to building a culture of responsibility is aligning people's work with their beliefs or interests. Responsible leaders always ask talented employees, "Does your work allow you to do what you know you should be doing?" Worksheets and scripts can help leaders assess alignment and determine whether a person's work matches his or her job description and sense of self. Mapping out a workday by identifying activities, time they take, and roadblocks provides a sense of whether job activities match job descriptions. Often job descriptions get lost under the immediate pressures of a work place. The responsible leader resuscitates the job description and helps an individual fulfill it. In a situation like Tara's, an individual has changed and the job description no longer matches his or her interests, talents, and beliefs. In this case, a work-life history can help leaders get to know an individual again and place that person in a new job that will maximize his or her abilities. By engaging the other person in solving problems, leaders allow others to take responsibility for their own jobs, and they avoid the pitfall of taking on too much responsibility themselves.
Tara did not blame others for her failings as vice-president, though another person in her situation might have. Resist a culture of blame by clarifying an individual's responsibility, and holding people responsible for their own behaviors. While organizational or team evaluations often are conducted, individual assessments are less common. Yet people are less likely to blame others if their achievement is measured individually. Once a leader helps establish an individual's responsibility for a conflict, the emphasis then can shift to problem-solving. Engaging subordinates in problem-solving helps transform problems into opportunities and helps instill the sense that "taking responsibility" is productive rather than punitive. Responsible leaders treat problem-solving as a chief priority. In Tara's case, I refused to simply terminate an employee who had thrived at the company for so long. I sought instead to help her work through her problems.
Responsible leaders realize survival and success lie in having the courage to confront threats. To this effect, they do not run away from conflict or change—rather they seek it out in order to convert problems into opportunities for growth. One way these leaders exercise responsibility is by meeting one-on-one with associates, as I did with Tara. One-on-one meetings are frightening because of their unpredictability. Yet meeting a challenge one-on-one represents the height of responsibility. It requires that you overcome initial fears, maintain your composure, follow your beliefs, stand up for the customer and the integrity of the organization, and move forward with persistence. These difficult acts ask you to model the responsible behavior you expect from others.
Emmett C. Murphy, Ph.D., is founder and president of Murphy Leadership, a global leadership consultancy. Murphy is the author of several books including the national bestseller, "Leadership IQ." He currently is at work on his new book, "The Responsibility Driven Culture."