Responsibility - and hedgehogs
We all take our families to work, in the shape of attitudes, beliefs, perceptions and themes in our lives. In my family, responsibility is a theme, and I’m interested to see how it shows up in our – and others’ – roles as leaders and team members.
One thing I notice is that imbalance in the way responsibility is used (and not used) in systems of all sorts, including organisations, is large-scale and widespread. It can lead to inertia – which reminds me of hedgehogs.
Too much responsibility assumed
Too much responsibility may be assumed (albeit unconsciously). This shows up with leaders who work hard to make sure that everything that needs doing is done, typically to a high standard, no matter whose responsibility it actually is. They may take on responsibility that belongs to those who report to them, who are their peers or who are their superiors because they judge that a task hasn’t been, or will not be, carried out to what they consider to be an appropriate standard.
They may be keeping an unconscious (or conscious) promise or a commitment they have made to a parent or another significant childhood figure to fulfil an aspiration that the parent themselves has not been able to fulfil, or an achievement they haven’t been able to attain. They may be – again unconsciously or consciously – trying to prove that they are good enough, worthwhile, or acceptable by doing the best job imaginable, even if that’s impossible. Those patterns, laid down in childhood, don’t shift until they’re noticed, questioned and examined.
Too much responsibility given
Inappropriate responsibility may be imposed in childhood, and taken on into work, via an expectation from one or other parent (e.g. ‘always look after your mother’ – and in the child’s interpretation, ‘always look after everybody else too’). Equally, that expectation may come from a boss who needs more in the role to be fulfilled than the role can actually accommodate, or from a promotion without anyone taking on the role that the individual has just left, so the privilege of promotion is diluted by also having to fulfil the previous role at the same time.
Blame for failure, explicit or insinuated, can also impose responsibility for a past error and its impact, how ever possible or not it is to adequately deal with that impact.
Too little responsibility assumed
When leaders fail to take on responsibility that is theirs, it may be that they feel inadequate to the task or it might be that cultural factors have conspired to persuade them that they don’t merit the role that they’re in. They may fear failing, and may persuade themselves that by not acting they don’t risk failure. Like the hedgehog who freezes in the middle of the road, they are likely to incur failure rather than avoid it.
Too little responsibility given
One of the classic situations in which appropriate responsibility is not given is represented by the micromanaging boss. In the process of over-attentive management or supervision, the individual being managed is disempowered, sometimes to the point where they feel unable, or too fearful, to take any action at all. This can lead to responsibility for decisions, initiative or innovation being shunted upwards, to the boss. In an organisational culture which tends to be punitive about mistakes or failures, that responsibility will be shunted even further upwards.
The impact of too much or too little responsibility
When too much responsibility is taken on, whatever the reason, the individual tends to lose sight of appropriate boundaries or choose unconsciously to ignore them. They may get exhausted, or at worst, burn out. They may lose the balance in their lives, their families, and their teams because everything is skewed towards the meeting of that responsibility.
When leaders take on too little responsibility we might see teams going adrift because they lack direction, agendas and strategies not being fulfilled, and difficulties and struggles in the team not being noticed or dealt with (which means they are simply perpetuated or even increased).
When an individual is deprived of appropriate responsibility, they may become detached or demotivated because they feel uninvolved and as though they don’t belong. That detachment means that team cohesion suffers and the team doesn’t pull together. They may not behave with integrity because they don’t feel entitled to stand up for what they believe is right.
Strikingly, in all these scenarios, both the team and the leader are weakened and become brittle: they lack resilience and the capacity to learn, develop and change as much as they could, and/or as much as they need to. Like the hedgehog, they may just get stuck in the middle of the road.
When appropriate responsibility is both given and taken, both leader and team are in balance, are able to fulfil their potential, and are supported on the road to flourishing and effectiveness. It’s a situation in which the use of systemic constellations, to illuminate dynamics which are otherwise hidden, can be an invaluable intervention.