Taking Responsibility

A friend recently pointed me in the direction of a short TED talk by Barry Schwartz (8 minutes), titled “The way we think about work is broken.” Schwartz observes that we’re not used to challenging things which have become socially acceptable, and over time, the blandification which sets in as a result of this reluctance, makes more and more work soulless and demeaning.

Schwartz’s short talk strikes a painful and necessary chord for me. I spend a lot of time taking deep breaths before asking those awkward questions. In so doing, I offer a challenge to the so-called ‘socially acceptable’ stuff. I seek to do this with kindness, yet observing and inquiring about those “elephants in the room,” frequently brings forth dissonance.

I’m both privileged and cursed by my late Mum who brought me up this way, to take responsibility for what I see around me, and to ask why. The initial responses I get from people in these inquiries often include shock, disbelief, sometimes even anger. I understand and appreciate the nature of the responses I get because very often, the awkward question I’m asking, however simple it may seem, challenges my own beliefs too.

To disagree with the norm puts people at risk. At risk of social exclusion, maybe even the risk of losing your job. A good friend recently introduced me to a group of people with these words: ‘Doug is someone who has an ability to ask challenging questions, openly and honestly and in a way that acknowledges his own shortcomings too. It’s powerful, and it’s why some people can’t wait to work with him again and why others never want to see him again’.

People say they want honesty and openness, until they look me in the eye and see my own and their own inadequacies reflecting back at them. At that point, it becomes easier to blame someone or something – in preference to owning (at least a share of) the responsibility for change.

I’m working with a group of people who are gathering some data about their performance, from people the group provides a service to. Prior to starting the exercise, the group reports feeling undervalued. The initial signs from the data relating to responsiveness, quality of work and other things, is strongly positive. There seems to be a mismatch? People self-select into small groups during some brief time we have together and agree a plan to self-organise, meet and discuss the data, then reconvene and share observations, findings, and suggested actions for improvement.

We gathered again several weeks later for the review, and it quickly became clear no one had met to talk. No one at all. Reminders had been sent, offers of assistance had been made, and nothing seemed to have happened. I was keen to understand why, and no one had any answers, at least none they were willing to state to the group. Maybe I should have gently persisted, gone deeper, but I didn’t. Maybe the sense of feeling undervalued which the group expressed is part of their own way of not taking responsibility? We ended up having the discussion together when the original intention was to have a review of things already discussed, and progress from there.

These things happen sometimes, and in this case, there was frustration expressed by people, both in the room and afterward, at the lack of progress. By way of an example, someone fed back, anonymously, that the whole thing was a “pointless waste of time because no one contacted me to arrange the discussion.” It apparently hadn’t occurred to this person they could have chosen to be the catalyst.

Subsequently, I reviewed the situation and asked myself what I could have done differently. What pieces of the process could I have taken better care of, could I have taken clearer ownership for? I spotted a few things, and I also wondered, did I expect too much that this group might self-organise and make something happen? After all, they were used to working in a typical hierarchical way, which often involves waiting to be told what to do. I’m not sure, and what I did observe, was that all the feedback from the group was about apportioning blame, rather than taking responsibility.

Enthusiasm, encouragement, support – these are all helpful, lovely, necessary ingredients which go towards co-creating a good working experience. And they’re not enough. At times, we need to take a deep breath and ask the awkward, challenging questions, and acknowledge our own shortcomings and those of others too. Not with the intention of shaming anyone, but in pursuit of a better outcome next time. We also need to take responsibility too. The clearer we can be about this the better. Clearly defined ownership of specific actions beats vague high level sweeping statements from which we can all abdicate from. Without finding the courage to do that, my concern is that all the rest, all that other good stuff, is surely just a waste of time?


Author: Doug Shaw

Artist and Consultant. Embracing uncertainty, sketching myself into existence. Helping people do things differently, through an artistic lens.

7 thoughts on “Taking Responsibility”

  1. I realise that much of the work about the formation and leadership of groups/teams (form, storm, norm, perform, reform) struggles in the millennial world of continual individual flux, but the lessons remain true. Teams require different leadership styles at different stages and the leader has judge what style is appropriate. Linked with that was the tendency to over-estimate his mature a group/team are.

    Despite appearances, these days a leader cannot afford to take a OSFA (one size fits all), but rather needs to be even more in tune with the group. I think that may have been behind your experience.

    1. Thanks for being in touch Ian.

      When doing this work, the group had been together for a while, and I’d met them a few times over an 18 month period. They persistently express a sense of not feeling valued, and to some extent, maybe the more positive way their colleagues experience the group, was another contributory factor to the subsequent lack of action? It didn’t reinforce their feelings so was perhaps easier to ignore than explore? When doing the work, I sought to invite and encourage, rather than coerce, and even so – maybe the group just agreed to act with no intention of doing so in order that I might shut up and move on? In this case I thought what we might see was a range of responses, partly driven by the offer for people to self organise rather than be instructed.

      My writing is a bit rusty of late so apologies for any lack of clarity on my part.

      Cheers – Doug

  2. Was it ‘learned helplessness’ that stopped them taking the initiative to make things happen? It seems to me that this is the condition many large hierarchical organisations install in their staff, whilst often proclaiming that they want the opposite (i.e. initiative, creativity, innovation, dynamism). This cognitive dissonance on the part of the organisation is repeated by the people, who were angry that nothing had happened whilst failing to take any responsibility for action.

    Compliant cogs don’t become leaders without undergoing some kind of transformation. Perhaps you needed to create some awareness and an inciting incident to start those who are willing on that path?

    1. Hi Colin. Yes – I think the gap between proclamation and behaviour was at play here. In a way, perhaps the awareness of compliance was created by the groups inability and or unwillingness to act, despite their agreement to do so? Maybe the ‘inciting incident’ of reviewing and understanding the data and why it conflicted with the group perception, caused too much dissonance in itself?

      Truthfully – I see this kind of thing happen a lot, and without wishing to get too down about it, I am often left wondering if the role of an external consultant is seen as a band aid to hide a problem, rather than an opportunity to let the problem air, and be explored openly.

      Cheers – Doug

    2. There is also a psychological/sociological principle/theory (I forget what it is called) whereby individuals in groups tend to readily avoid taking responsibility – the bigger the group and the more public the setting the less likely. I am not sure of the reasoning(s) behind this (not wanting to cause a scene – even if one has already been caused, or perhaps inaction prompts more inaction – group mentality).

  3. There is a great deal in here to provoke thought. I think there has been a change in how consultancy is procured; delegated to someone else to choose. CEO wants to do something about culture, delegates search to, perhaps someone in L&D. Head of Service wants to develop internal change capability; procurement search goes to portal. Something gets diluted, lost, reimagined in the delegation. remade in the image of the mental model of the delegatee. Then when the consultant arrives, there is a mismatch already.
    Is the delegation the system protecting itself? I think so. Resistance through the structures and systems.
    The work I do that has the most efficacy is where the noticing and needing and then procurement comes from the source. the person who is in the system that is stuck/awkward/helpless who wants it.

    1. Thank you Meg. I can relate to what you are sharing here, and in addition – I am conscious that the source may not always have access to the necessary levers and dials, particularly when it comes to the procurement part. I have the need, do I have the budget…the authority?

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