Why Take Less Responsibility As A Leader?
There’s a false assumption about leadership I keep running across from time to time. It is about responsibility. But it’s not about NOT taking responsibility when someone is in a leadership position, although I also wrote some thoughts about this in one of my previous articles.
It is about taking too much responsibility as a leader.
Moreover, sucking away responsibility from others, leaving only a vacuum of helplessness around.
The consequences of taking too much responsibility
You can call it micromanagement, you can call it being a control freak or you can talk about the inability to delegate tasks and projects to others. The core issue is always the same: you don’t trust other people around you enough to give away some of your responsibility to them. These people can be your direct reports, your project team members or your peers.
The results are the same:
you work much more than you should,
they develop much slower than they could, and on the long run they even start to ‘unlearn’ how to take responsibility and how to work in a proactive way,
What’s your purpose as a leader?
There’s also a misunderstanding about what is your purpose in a leadership position. If you have a team and your are expected to reach results in an organization with your team, your main responsibility as a leader is not about the key performance indicators or the business targets. Your key purpose is not to deliver the numbers.
It’s your team’s responsibility.
Your key purpose as a leader is always to constantly develop your team in order to help them achieve their targets and reach unexpected results on their own.
I repeat this so that you feel its importance: your key purpose as a leader is not to reach KPIs. Your main responsibility is to develop your team.
KPI’s are your team’s responsibility.
Of course you can say this is an exaggeration of someone from the leadership development business. But it’s not.
Let’s make this responsibility thing clear.
Who is responsible?
If you get a project or a business target from your manager, who is responsible for reaching it? Of course, it’s you. You accepted the goal, you agreed on the target and the deadline with your manager. You are responsible to deliver it.
Then, you delegate a part of the project to one of your team members, let’s call him Peter. You ask him, for example, to prepare a feasibility study, including all the costs and a planned timeline of the project, by the end of the next week.
Who is responsible for the completion of this study? Of course, it’s Peter.
But there’s a twist here.
Let’s assume that Peter is late assembling that feasibility study. When your boss calls you asking about the status of the project, it’s absolutely your responsibility to respond.
You can’t say: “I’m sorry but Peter is slow as hell and I really don’t know when he will be able to produce at least a budget estimation. It’s his fault, I did everything I could to explain him what to do but he’s is also stubborn as a mule and makes it on his own, very slow way.”
This would be a catastrophic answer, avoiding all the responsibility you have to take as a leader.
Saying this is like checking out from your leadership position.
Because if you got a project to accomplish you will always be responsible for that project towards the person you got it from.
Get a virtual life coach in your pocket.
Responsibility towards the world outside
So your proper answer would be something like that, assuming you got yourself informed about the status of the feasibility study by Peter:
“I’m sorry but we had some technical problems when trying to gather information to estimate a few budget items. I’ll be able to provide you reliable information in three days. Thanks for your patience.”
You take the responsibility and you do not share your own problems about Peter with your boss.
It’s none of his business.
Until you don’t directly ask your manager to help you dealing with one of your slow team members. But this case is not the scope of this article.
And what about Peter? Didn’t I write before that it was Peter’s responsibility to prepare that feasibility study?
Of course it is. It’s completely his responsibility when it’s about a conversation between you and him.
And that’s the twist here. That’s the weak point where the best leadership can bend and break if you don’t pay attention.
When you turn to Peter, you can ask him how he’s getting on with his project. And he can answer he encountered serious difficulties and he is desperate because he just couldn’t find any reliable information on some of the budget items.
He adds that the problem is with those stubborn officers at the purchasing department who just don’t want to cooperate and claim that they can’t give away budget information concerning external contractors from the past years.
Peter is clueless how to go on, however he thinks maybe you could talk to the purchasing manager to make her team members more cooperative.
Do you feel that this is a watershed moment in your conversation?
It’s useful to imagine responsibility as a little monkey sitting on someone’s shoulder. Most people don’t like to have this monkey on his/her shoulder too long. We crave to try it like tourists like to do in India, holding the monkey for a minute just to take some photos and share them on social media.
But on the long run, this monkey could start to become heavy, annoying and tiring.
So a lot of people try to get rid of this monkey sooner or later.
And in this very moment when your colleague shares his problem with you and cautiously mentions that you may speak to the manager of the Purchasing Department, there’s a chance that something horrible could happen. This little monkey on Peter’s shoulder is lurking, waiting for the opportunity to jump onto your shoulder.
It’s up to you to allow it.
Walking into the trap
You can respond Peter like that: “Oh, I see. How unfortunate. But did you try telling them we are working for the same company so it’s not reasonable to hide information from you?” “Of course I did”, Peter would reply, “but they insisted that anything related to budget is considered sensitive information and they need their manager’s approval to give them away.”
Then you could go on with “Yes, of course, rules are rules. Then I’ll speak to their boss and try to figure out a solution.”
And THAT’s the moment when the monkey leaped from Peter’s shoulder and landed on your wide, brave and strong leadership shoulders, for good.
You took away the responsibility of accomplishing the subproject from Peter, and grabbed it along with the dozens if not hundreds of other responsibilities you are already desperately grasping.
You are going to meet the purchasing manager, negotiate with her, find a solution and follow up how they handle those sensitive information to Peter. There’s a good chance you will continue to micromanage the process until it’s done, meaning you are going to prepare the feasibility report together with Peter.
What did you do wrong?
Change the way you deal with your difficulties.
You didn’t want to do the study with Peter. You wanted him to do it? So what happened?
The false assumption here in my experience is that you didn’t really delegate the project of preparing the report to Peter. Instead, you delegated something like “Work on the preparation of the report until a problem occurs.”
You may even told him “If you have any problem, feel free to ask me” or “If you need help, I’m here”.
What are these sentences imply to Peter? I think there are hidden (or not so hidden) messages here, like:
“You are not capable of solving an unexpected problem in this project.”
“You don’t need to think when you bump into an obstacle. Just come to me, I’ll solve it.”
Which means: “You are not responsible for the resolution of any problems in this project. You are only responsible to do the easy and routine tasks. But if something even slightly difficult occurs, it will be my responsibility.”
So that would mean you don’t have to help your team members as a leader? That wouldn’t sound reasonable considering that your main responsibility is to develop them.
Then what is your responsibility?
You do have to help their development. What I don’t advise to do is to get their work done instead of letting them take responsibility. To solve their problems instead of letting them find a solution on their own.
And the first step of starting to develop your colleagues instead of doing their job is to make yourself aware that it’s their responsibility.
You agreed on a goal with Peter. He accepted the deadline and the terms. It’s his responsibility to accept it and then it’s his responsibility to accomplish it. Not yours.
Your responsibility is to report to your boss, even covering the team and asking for more time. It’s your responsibility because it was you who agreed on the terms of the project with your boss.
And it’s also your responsibility to follow-up Peter’s progress, motivate him or find a way to boost his performance in the subproject he got.
Giving away responsibility to foster your colleagues’ development
But then, it’s Peter’s responsibility to do the same negotiation with you, asking for example a change in the deadline.
And it’s his responsibility to solve the problem with the Purchasing Department. To talk to the purchasing manager. To persuade her colleagues to share the necessary information with him. Or to go around and get the info from another source. Or to make an educated guess. Or to use benchmarks found on the internet. Or to try another creative option.
And while trying to find these solutions Peter will be constantly developing, gathering experience, handling unexpected situations, negotiating, influencing others, dealing with uncertainty and proactively solving any emerging difficulties.
Sometimes you develop your colleagues like Peter by simply not always being available for them. But that’s not the best solution, as a lot of people stops thinking and initiating and loses motivation when their managers are constantly unavailable.
A better solution is to be available for them when they need help, provide help, but not in the way they usually expect it.
Help your team members without letting their monkeys jump onto your shoulder. By making yourself aware of the fact that the solution of their problems are their responsibility.
Your responsibility is to develop them and help them solving their difficulties on their own.
Ask solution-oriented questions
So instead of trying to be a good, benevolent and caretaking manager, instead of starting to solve every difficulty Peter encountered, why not try to ask him some solution-oriented coaching questions?
You can start by summarizing what you understood about his problem:
“I understand, Peter that you had difficulties getting some budget-related information from the purchaser guys and you feel that this is an obstacle that hinders you to complete the feasibility study by Friday.”
Then you can go on with any of these questions:
How would you get those guys to help you?
How would you get the purchasing manager to help you?
What else can you do to gather that information?
Who else can you ask for help?
Where could you find that information on your own?
How could you make an educated guess about that information?
How could you create a good enough report without the precise knowledge of that info?
Forget about this problem for a minute! Looking at the big picture, how could you prepare that study by Friday?
What’s your intuition on this situation? What is the best solution here? How could you make it real?
What is a creative, out-of-the-box solution to this problem? How could you make it real?
If you were in my place, how would you solve that situation? Why not try this option on your own?
Develop your emotional intelligence.
Trust and responsibility: 5 important assumptions to remember
There are 5 main assumptions behind these questions that are needed if you want this kind of leadership communication to work:
1. I’m not responsible for solving my colleague’s problem.
2. I may not know the best solution to it. Moreover: I may not know a solution to his/her problem that my colleague is capable of accomplish (my solutions will most likely be based on my skills and experience).
3. S/he is responsible for solving his/her problem on her own. That’s why s/he is paid for.
4. She most likely know a good enough solution to do it. S/he just need to dedicate time and energy to think about it.
5. I’m fully responsible of the development of my colleagues. I have to do everything I can to carry out this responsibility.
See? It’s really not difficult.
You are responsible for any kind of goals you agree on with your manager. And your colleagues are responsible for any kind of goals they agreed on with you.
When you are talking to your manager, to a client, to another department, you take all the responsibility for your team’s actions. But when you are talking to one of your team members, s/he takes all the responsibility about the task s/he is in charge of accomplishing.
It’s important not to mix up these two cases. And remember your purpose as a leader: it is to constantly develop your team in order to let them reach any business target you get or set.
Want to know more about how to lead better in the uncertain and ever-changing world of the 21st century? Do you want to try a new method of getting to know your team members better? Or are you interested about how you can utilize the benefits of your leadership imperfections?
Then read our previous mind changing articles below!
DO YOU REALLY KNOW YOUR TEAM MEMBERS?
As leaders, we are always in action mode when trying to do our best in achieving business goals. A lot of managers are afraid of slowing down from this action mode because they would feel themselves unproductive. But if you want to know your team members better and lead them in a way that unlocks their full potential, you will have to regularly switch to observation mode. Let’s see a simple and practical way to do that, and its benefits in your leadership practice!
WHAT TO DO WHEN LEADERSHIP ROLE MODELING FAILS?
Leaders are role models for their followers all the time whether they want it or not. They are role models together with their imperfections. It might help to face this challenge if we are convinced that others can learn from our imperfections and we can grow by them too. Let’s see what you can do to make the most of your own imperfections as a leader and how can you encourage your followers to be your partner in that!
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