The Gift of Responsibility

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Often when we talk of making someone responsible, it seems like we are placing a burden on that individual.  From one lens, the responsibility can be a burden from both the giver and receiver’s point of view.  When I asked my son to be responsible for taking out the trash, I am sure that he perceived this as a burden. As the giver of this responsibility, I knew that there was going to be a burden on my part to ensure the task was completed in a timely manner.

If we believe that it’s a parent’s role to develop our children into accountable adults, then giving responsibilities to our children is part of that development. It would be far easier and take less time initially to do the task ourselves instead of spending the time reminding and prodding them.  While our initial lens may be the burden of the task, the individual will not develop accountability without being given responsibility.

As a coach, our role is to expand the thinking and capabilities of the learner.  This needs to go beyond asking questions and providing feedback; we must also create challenging situations for them to learn.  While taking out the trash doesn’t seem challenging, asking questions about the importance of the activity and the necessity of doing it routinely would not have achieved the same result.  If we had great dialogue about how the process works and the reasons behind the timely removal, this may have led to my son’s improved knowledge but not to developing his understanding of accountability.

As leaders we often find ourselves in a similar situation.  A leader I was working with did a great job of initiating daily management within her billing department.  She would huddle with her team, ask great open-ended questions, and implemented improvement ideas from her staff.  All was going well, except that she was doing all the data tracking, improvement actions and follow-ups.  The group was positive, but they had not yet become a community of problem solvers. She needed to develop her staff.

While some of the tasks, like recording and plotting the data daily, may have seemed like the burden of taking out the trash, it created a deeper understanding of the data and related processes by the staff member it was assigned to.  The responses to the leader’s questions became richer and deeper.  Another staff member was given the duty of completing improvement actions.  While this could have been viewed as the burden of one more task to complete in an already packed day, this staff member beamed when sharing the completed work.  Not only did she learn the concepts of Plan-Do-Study-Adjust, she also learned valuable communications and social skills as she learned to collaborate with her teammates. They had been given the gift of responsibility.

For responsibility to be a gift, it must also come with support.  For the staff member plotting data daily, there needed to be training on understanding the process, how to retrieve the data, and how to plot it.  The staff member working on improvements needed guidance and coaching.  At times it may have been easier for that leader to make the call or place the purchase order, but that would have robbed the learner’s development.  As noted by Mike Rother in Toyota Kata, the coach’s role is to keep the learner in the learning zone. Adopted from The Learning Zone Model by Senninger, Rother contends that for learning to happen we must move beyond our current knowledge threshold into the zone of uncertainty (reference 2).  If we give staff tasks they already know how to do, this is delegation and not development.

Dr. Jeffrey K. Liker, notes that the coach’s role also includes keeping the learner out of the danger zone. The billing staff member from the previous example headed towards the danger zone as one improvement opportunity idea challenged a corporate policy.  Asking this staff member to challenge a corporate policy would have been overwhelming, moving her into the Danger Zone.  The leader/coach’s role was to keep her in the learning zone by getting her to focus on their department’s process while she escalated the opportunity.

If support is provided, responsibility can be a gift that helps move us from knowledge to understanding.  As leaders our role is to make these responsibilities gifts and not burdens by providing support to develop our people.


Theresa Moore, Faculty


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