Responsibility without power – a corporate contradiction in terms

In many company cultures, the word “responsibility” doesn’t really signify real responsibility. The dictionary says: Responsibility, having an obligation to do something, or having control over or care for someone, as part of one’s job or role.

Responsibility without control, power to make decisions and act, is offloading real responsibility to a superior. However, the really interesting thing about this issue is what happens to people when they do get real responsibility.

Responsibility awakens our personal history in us. Most of us lived through a childhood where responsibility lay with our parents. Living many years with parents having the responsibility and making the decisions, will leave traces in our personality. The experiences we have while growing up shape the roles we learn to imitate and, with them, the rules we live by. In other words, these growing up experiences shape our way of seeing life. When we see things a certain way, we choose to do things a certain way.

Rules and roles have been the subject of research since psychology’s beginning. There are many cooks in that theoretical broth, nevertheless some kind of agreement has actually materialised. One example of a model, general and sufficient enough to be deemed acceptable by the profession, was developed by Eric Berne. Briefly, this model states that growing up forms psychologically guiding structures we can summarise with the help of the concepts “Child”, “Parent” and “Adult”. Each one of these structures come with a set up of attitudes and behaviours..

“Parent” is a role that takes on the burden of responsibility and decision making. By virtue of superior knowledge, experience and legal responsibility, “Parent” makes its perspective the all-embracing norm.

“Child” is a role that we gradually find ourselves in, developed as a counterpart to “The Parent” in the family dynamic. As we don’t take on decisions and responsibility, we play a more passive role. Instead we are more playful, creative and experimenting. In many ways, irresponsible.

“Adult” is a a psychological structure, able to balance both “Parent” and “Child”. “Adult” is rational, respectful and goal oriented. The burden of responsibility is still there. The playfulness and creativity of the “Child” is still there. But we find a greater flexibility and ability to move between different roles.

There is a problem with delegating. The word “delegating” derives from Latin, formed by the word “de” as in Latin for “down” and “legare” as in Latin for “bind” or “tie”, in other words, “tie down”. The one doing the delegating is the one who finally deems the result okay. You, being delegated to, don’t have any real responsibility.

With traditional delegation it is quite probable you will have your “Child-script” activated. Everything is present for that to happen – an authority and a dependent part – which makes it easy to fall back into childhood patterns. To be treated as a child makes you uncertain and a bit insecure but – more importantly – dependent on acknowledgement. You have to check and double check. You do not fully put your own thinking and power to work. Instead, you spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure out what the boss is thinking. Feedback and mistake management tend to be backward looking and moralising. You might even get lost in a discussion about who made the mistake and a feeling of not being up to the challenge.

When you are really responsible, you can feel it directly on your skin. You become, in many ways, alone with what you are doing. No authority or manager on whom to off-load the reason for bad results. You have to activate your own thinking in full. Your view of things takes the lead. Feedback and mistake management become forward looking and prepare the ground for interesting and exciting learning.

Something happens to us when we have, or seize, real responsibility. We will become more motivated because the results hit us directly. We will seek advice because we want to do the best we can. We will build alliances up and down the workflow because we will need alliances to solve our problems. Rather than waiting to be informed, we will make sure we are informed about things that matter. We will set higher, more realistic goals because because we no longer need to sandbag to protect ourselves from the wrath of authority.

Who would you rather work with? Somebody with real responsibility or somebody with “fake-responsibility”?

Here are some initial questions along the journey towards a more able decision-making organisation:

  • Do your people have real power in their work?
  • Do your people have responsibility matching their true capacity?
  • Can your company become faster and stronger if more of your decisions are taken closer to where the problems are?
  • How do you organise work and delegate authority if you want your people to carry real responsibility?
  • What role will remain for specialists in a company where responsibility and power is distributed optimally?

By: Mats Eriksson and Lasse Ramqvist