Shared Responsibility? Here’s Why YOU Just Really Need to Own It

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Jun 19, 2014

I had an epiphany! Well, maybe it’s better explained as an out-of-body experience.

Well, maybe not quite that. What it really was, was a personal experience that validated an old “management truism” for me.

I use “responsibility charting” a lot with my clients. This is a business process whereby responsibilities are assigned; subordinate tasks are identified, and each subordinate task is assigned to one person as “responsible.”

There are dozens of versions of this process with different names, but the basic premise remains the same: there can only be one “R.” I like the tool because it accelerates forward movement of a team, because of role clarity.

Can two be responsible?

I have introduced this tool to many, many groups over the years, and I am asked routinely, “Why can’t there be more than one ‘R?’” My response is always that two people cannot effectively (the operative word) own a task, and if you’re trying to assign a task to multiple people, your tasks aren’t yet sufficiently broken out.

That usually satisfies them. Once they have struggled a bit, they realize that the task could actually be broken down into subordinate tasks.

But until now, not having two or more be responsible was theoretical for me; I intuitively understood it, but I couldn’t point to an example in my own experience to use as a model. I now have had my own experience with sharing an “R.”

Let me explain why sharing responsibility may not be the way to go.

A little background

I accepted an offer to serve as a co-President of a professional association. A little voice told me that it might not be a workable thing, but I agreed to do it because I wanted to be involved. I totally lucked out, because my co-President is wonderful and we have, I think, done a great job of talking through our responsibilities, dividing things up so that each of us had a part to “own.”

We even divided up the leadership tasks for our membership meetings, where one of us kicked the meeting off, and the other ended it up. Both of us were really busy the past few months, but luckily (and I do think it was luck), one or the other of us caught things that needed to be done.

So here I am, the week before a big membership meeting with a lot of moving parts. My co-President lets me know that she will be out of town on business and won’t make the meeting. She was really apologetic, and I quickly reassured her that I’d be fine; I’d be able to handle the meeting alone and I will. But this followed the fact that our Program Director who put the meeting together would not be there either.

Two days later, I realize with a bit of a shock that I am treating this meeting very differently than I have treated past meetings where we shared the responsibility for making sure the plans were made and that the meeting went smoothly. I am really preparing for the meeting; there won’t be anyone else to pick up what I miss!

Resting on your trust in others

What an epiphany for me. What I realized is that I was resting on my trust in others. My preparation consisted of thinking a bit about the meeting, but that was the extent of it.

I trusted that the Program Director would take care of the odds and ends, and he has, to this point. But there are six days until the meeting, he is out-of-town now, and any number of things could go wrong. And I trusted that my co-President would step in and add what I missed, or correct something I said if necessary.

But neither will be there, so it all comes down to me. I am very OK with that, but now I have to think through this epiphany in terms of what I’ve learned.

So, what have I learned? Two things:

1. Ownership is important

I have approached this co-President role very differently than I would have approached it were I the sole President. I find that I am relying on my “co” rather than carrying a leadership share of the role.

I shared the burden of the planning and preparation. I didn’t carve out time to spend on the work of the organization, which is unusual for me. I typically review, make lists, review some more, cross things off lists, and generally know exactly what is due, and what has happened.

I can’t make that statement in this role. It was alarmingly easy for me to let go of my routine and allow someone else to pick up the pieces.

2. I hesitate

I’m an introvert, and my “co” is an extravert. I find myself hesitating in asking hard questions, and I’m not one who generally hesitates.

When the outcome depends upon my actions, I don’t hesitate. I can only conclude that, as the outcome has several safety nets, I’ve allowed myself to approach the role differently.

What does all this mean?

In my mind, “ownership” of a task is really important. It enables the “owner” to be creative and think about the task from many different perspectives; to realize, if you will, that the outcome rests with him.

Of course, the final proposal is always incorporated into the bigger tasks, with input from the team. But the approach to the task, when that task is owned, has a significant impact on the responsible person’s reputation and sense of purpose, which forces a totally different approach.

It isn’t so much sharing responsibility, as it is not doing EVERYTHING possible as the owner of a task. As soon as you can rely on someone else and take off your pack, you aren’t owning the task. This, I believe, has implications for leadership – clarity of roles and responsibilities.

Back to responsibility charting

Conceptually, responsibility charting breaks tasks down to where there IS a logical owner. My response to questions I got was on target. But leadership is all about stepping up, grabbing hold, and doing more than you were asked to do. Sharing ownership puts that initiative at risk.

The Center for Creative Leadership identifies “stretch assignments” as one of the most powerful leadership experiences possible. How can you stretch when you are sharing?

We want all employees to exhibit initiative and engagement. What better way than clarifying for them their responsibility, giving them clear ownership (along with appropriate parameters) and celebrating their results?

This originally appeared on the ….@ the intersection of learning & performance blog.

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