The thing with responsibility

Guest contribution by | 25.09.2023

The Kimble Chef Check 2019¹ shows that almost 70% of respondents would like to be given more responsibility by their boss. At the same time, one hears time and again managers who would like employees to take on more responsibility. Where is the gap here? Is everyone talking about the same thing? And is it even possible to have no responsibility?

What is responsibility?

Wikipedia² defines the term as follows:

“[…] primarily the ability to assess one’s own ability and the possible consequences of decisions and to act in such a way that the expected goals are achieved with the greatest probability.

This is often associated with the awareness of bearing guilt and shame in the event of failure.

In this context, responsibility can result in the voluntary (responsible) or (in the case of ignorance or external determination) involuntary assumption of an obligation to answer for the possible consequences of an action or a decision taken and, if necessary, to account for them or accept punishment. A sense of responsibility presupposes a conscience, knowledge of values as well as legal regulations and social norms. […]”

This makes it very clear that responsibility has little to do with the outside, and that the assumption and awareness are intrinsic.

The Duden³, on the other hand, defines it differently:

“[associated with a certain task, a certain position] obligation to ensure that (within a certain framework) everything takes as good a course as possible, that what is necessary and right in each case is done, and that as little harm as possible occurs.”

Here again, the clear action is brought to the fore, which arises in the awareness of having room for manoeuvre.

When managers or “bosses” want their employees to be more active, it is certainly the desire for precisely this active action: make sure that everything necessary is done correctly and avoid harm in the process.

This is then usually accompanied by the assignment of a concrete task, which is then to be dutifully completed.

“You must see to it that X is done by Y.”

But is this really taking responsibility?

I dare say that employees mean something different when they say they would like to be given more responsibility (I also see a big difference between being given it and taking it on).

It should be clear in every constellation that both the takeover and the handover require some basic things that should be clearly defined:

  • Does the employee want to and can he or she take on responsibility?
  • What is the scope or limits of the scope of action?
  • What is the desired result / goal and by what date?
  • What resources and control elements are available?
  • When and within what framework are reports / reviews carried out?

All these factors (and probably many more) are necessary to fulfil the requirement of completing something well and correctly. But this is not done with “You have to take care that…”. This is delegating a task, not putting a responsibility in the room.

Responsibility? No, thank you!

Taking on responsibility often goes hand in hand with privileges: one enjoys trust, has one’s own, perhaps extended, scope of action, the prospect of being able to chalk up a success for oneself and thus strengthen one’s self-confidence, etc. These factors are also usually highlighted very clearly and one might think that everyone is actually eager to finally be allowed to take on more responsibility. These factors are also usually emphasised very clearly and one might think that everyone is actually eager to finally be allowed to take on more responsibility.

But, and this should not be swept under the carpet, things can also turn out differently. Despite the greatest effort and dedication, things can go wrong. Things can go wrong, external influences can make plans obsolete, work that has been done can suddenly become obsolete. Depending on the environment, you may also have to expect more or less severe consequences.

You then have to answer for them. This can be unpleasant or even a heavy burden. Even before it is clear whether the project will be a success or a failure, this fact can weigh on you. But whether the project is successful or not depends on many factors:

  • Is the mission clarification explicit,
  • is the prioritisation clear within the organisation and in relation to other projects,
  • are the requirements comprehensible and free of contradictions,
  • are the objectives aligned and realistic?

The list of factors can easily be extended. One thing is important to realise: even if you make a commitment voluntarily and with all the means at your disposal, you do not always have control over all factors.

When hierarchy-free teams (in the sense of: several people, without a dedicated team leader, working on one topic) are given room to manoeuvre, it usually becomes clear very quickly who feels responsible not only for individual tasks, but for the big picture, thus giving the group a secure framework.

So if I want staff to be more active, I have to create the parameters for it. I have to provide an environment that also allows for not being successful. Encouraging people to take on commitments also requires a constructive feedback loop that allows people to experience, process, adapt and grow.

If employees do not seem to want to become more active, do not actively work on exploiting or expanding room for manoeuvre, or make this clear in conversations, this is usually not due to the person’s own ability. It is precisely at this moment that the person takes responsibility and decides (actively or passively) against an option.

And it is precisely then that it is the task of the manager or the boss to find out why employees do not want this in this context. Is it the threat of consequences of commitment or is it the environment? Is it perhaps the employee’s personal circumstance that is preventing the takeover?

In exactly the same way, employees should also clearly communicate why taking on responsibility does not seem possible or too risky to them. Wrong” communication can very quickly create the impression that there is no responsibility at all that can be taken on. Or there are internal and/or external factors that stand in the way.

In my experience, one is never without responsibility. It always sticks to you. The only question is for whom or what and to what extent one wants to deal with it.

Engaging in exchange

In sum, as with so many things, clear communication helps. Both employees who would like to take on more responsibility and managers who would like to hand over responsibility. However, clear communication also requires a clear definition. Of course, this can live, but initially the framework on which it is built must be in place.

Living responsibility can be fulfilling for many, but for others it is a burden. This fact should be internalised. It helps neither the company nor the employees if responsibilities are anchored in the wrong places. But here too, mistakes sometimes happen and not every person can bear the possible consequences. Then it is all the more important (and also an obligation of the manager) to remedy this circumstance.

We should engage more in exchange and not believe that everyone has the same understanding. Talk in your organisation about what it means to be responsible, what is enjoyed and what one might even be afraid of. Distinguish between control and responsibility. And identify the people who can carry corporate responsibility.

And last but not least: there is no such thing as no responsibility, but there is room for manoeuvre that you can adjust.


Notes (in German):

[1] Persoblogger: Kimble Chef Check 2019
[2] Definition bei Wikipedia
[3] Definition bei Duden

If you like the post or want to discuss it, feel free to share it with your network.

Tamara-Jane Schickle has published two other interesting posts on the t2informatik Blog:

t2informatik Blog: Customer Experience in B2B

Customer Experience in B2B

t2informatik Blog: Quo vadis, meeting culture?

Quo vadis, meeting culture?

Tamara-Jane Schickle
Tamara-Jane Schickle

Tamara-Jane Schickle works as Product Manager and Team Leader Development at Omikron Data Solution GmbH. After training as a public administration specialist, she tried her hand at various professions in order to find something that really suits her. In 2015 she first came in contact with agile software development and that is where she discovered her passion: doing something with people and using common sense. She has been working for Omikron since 2019 and enjoys the daily challenges.