Victimhood starts at the top

One of the things that I keep hearing from execs is how they want their staff to take responsibility. To take action and own the result. Of how fed up they are of people only doing what they’re told to do, only following instructions.

It’s an easy one to want. There are, of course, two big issues with people taking responsibility – what happens when someone does take responsibility, but things go wrong; and how much responsibility should they be taking?

And the role models of the execs themselves are crucial to both. How many take genuine responsibility for their actions and choices? Because the choice is always there – although it may not be a palatable one. A common refrain in my recent experience has been "The market has dropped/The competition has got ahead/Our products aren’t good enough – and therefore we are forced to make cuts/redundancies".

There’s a pretty crucial one – "forced to". It’s often phrased slightly differently, but the inference is the same – we infer that they are victims of some greater force than themselves, whether it’s the market, legislative forces or shareholders. That’s pretty much anathema to taking responsibility. But there are alternatives.

Just because there is a powerful force [market] that you don’t have control over, that doesn’t mean you have no control in the situation. You still have a choice over your response. If you want people to see what it is to take responsibility, it doesn’t take much in the way of words, but it does take courage. Because there will be people reacting negatively once you do it.

"The market has dropped and we are in a difficult position. So I’ve decided that our best course of action is to make some cuts." But don’t just leave it there – that sounds, after all, like the heartless boss you were scared of sounding like. Some added context and some genuine personal feeling make all the difference. "It was one of the toughest decisions I’ve had to make, and I realise that for many people it will be a disappointment. I looked at alternatives such as keeping everyone here and making cuts elsewhere, creating new partnerships [etc], but I couldn’t see that these were going to make the difference we need to grow again. We’ll work on these other things as well, but for now, this is the best way forward."

Not perfect by any means. Going to get lots of reaction, particularly from those who are leaving. But it owns the decision. It takes responsibility for a tough decision. It doesn’t imply the company is helpless at the hands of market forces or any other imperious force. And it demonstrates responsibility from the top.

Which leaves the question of what happens when someone takes responsibility and it goes badly. What happens in your organisation? Or, more importantly, what do people believe happens in your organisation?