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Performance Matters: Who is Responsible for Results?

As an executive manager, you know who your "responsible" people are the ones who get things done despite the obstacles. They seem to work from an internal drive, 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 a business context, responsibility aligns the actions taken 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. The primary distinction is that accountability is a set of expectations one person creates for another, while responsibility is a set of expectations an individual 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. Making accountabilities clear is a management best practice, yet it is often difficult to apply. In order to establish accountabilities, executive management must communicate what needs to be accomplished, not how it should be accomplished. Only when people understand what needs to be accomplished can they figure out how to do what needs to be done.

Responsibility, on the other hand, may not be communicated. It is an "inside job" an individual accepts it him- or herself. An individual may not rationalize his/her sense of responsibility he or she simply acts upon it. When an individual accepts responsibility, he or she will figure out how to accomplish the accountabilities. The greater the sense of responsibility, the more effort the individual puts into figuring out how to do what needs to be accomplished.

Another distinction is that accountability can be delegated, while responsibility cannot. The formal 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 normal occurrences in management and working individuals, why are these two concepts so difficult to reconcile in a work environment?

The Manager's Dilemma: Letting Go of Responsibility
One answer lies in what Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, called the courage to be clear. Making accountabilities clear is not easy. Yet if the accountabilities are not clear, people cannot take responsibility, act effectively and achieve results.

Another answer involves the executive manager's own sense of responsibility. Before individuals can take responsibility, the manager must let go of it. If the executive manager keeps the responsibility for accomplishing the outcomes, none of the subordinates can take it away or accept it themselves. An executive manager with a strong sense of responsibility can inadvertently interfere with a subordinate's ability to take responsibility.

If the manager retains the responsibility by "taking the work back" or overdirecting, the subordinate must let them. Few individuals have the courage or capability to defend their work against their boss. So the subordinate cannot take responsibility if the executive manager won't let go of it.

Inherent in this management problem is the reality that one person cannot tell another person how to do something. We can only describe how we would do it. An individual will carry out specific tasks or activities based on his/her own set of skills and understandings, which are by nature different from how others will carry them out.

So how do you, as an executive manager, encourage responsibility effectively? A first step is to ensure that you communicate the accountabilities the expected outcomes as clearly as possible to subordinates. Second, keep subordinates' performance focused on those accountabilities by providing feedback on their progress. Third, don't tell subordinates how to do things. Let go. Focus on the outcomes. If the work gets done and the outcomes are achieved using the resources allocated, how the work gets done is secondary to the results. And the more responsible people become, the more the results will matter to them.

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