Image: Employee Responsibility and Recognition

Two bad ways to think about responsibility in the workplace (and one great way)

We have two good reasons for thinking that we need to pay more attention to the issue of responsibility in the workplace. First, an experiment from the 1960s involving electric shocks makes clear just how bad things can get if people don’t take responsibility for their actions (it’s far worse than most of us might think!). Second, it’s more difficult to display the right kind of responsibility than we might think because responsibility can be inspired by at least three figures: children, bureaucrats and leaders. The challenge, then, is to figure out which of these types of responsibility we want employees to display in the workplace.

The importance of responsibility

In the 1960’s, a psychologist called Stanley Milgrim conducted a study to determine how likely people were to do what they were told by an authority figure. In this study, the subject was instructed to deliver an electric shock to a learner every time the learner got an incorrect answer in a verbal test, with the shocks getting increasingly intense with each wrong answer. After a number of shocks had been delivered, the learner (who was, unknown to the subject, just a pre-recorded voice) would grow more and more upset and would eventually warn the subject that they had a heart condition. Finally they would fall silent and become completely non-responsive. Well over half the subjects continued to deliver shocks as instructed until the very end of the experiment, past the point where the learner’s silence could indicate unconsciousness or even death.

What does this have to do with workplaces? Well, while it’s unlikely that your employees are going to end up electrocuting people, the basic principle is the same: if you don’t take steps to ensure that employees take responsibility for their actions, they will often fail to act in the best interests of the organization because they will ignore what their judgment is telling them about what they ought to do. Responsibility, then, is of core importance in the workplace.

How to think about workplace responsibility

But how should we think about workplace responsibility?

The Bureaucrat

There’s the responsibility of the bureaucrat. On this view, responsibility is about clearly dividing up tasks so that people know which things they are and are not responsible for. There’s something valuable about this sort of responsibility: people should have ownership of some tasks and they can’t be involved in everything so there also have to be limits to their ownership. However, this is the sort of responsibility that caused the problem in Milgrim’s experiment: the subjects acted as if the learner’s well-being was the experimenter’s responsibility and not their own. In the workplace, something similar happens that can be neatly summarized in the slogan “that’s not my problem”. The responsibility of the bureaucrat leads to an attitude of deliberately ignoring problems that need to be fixed if they fall outside of the person’s defined responsibilities.

The child

Alternatively, then, there’s the responsibility of the child. When we say that a child is responsible we mean that they display caution. A responsible child looks both ways before crossing the road and never takes candy from strangers. Again, there’s something valuable about showing such responsibility in the workplace: if someone completes a report early in case something goes wrong this seems to be a good sort of cautious responsibility. However, in the workplace sometimes we need employees to act like adults and not children: over-caution can lead to lost opportunities for the organization.

The leader

Finally, then, there’s the responsibility of the leader. On this view, responsibility is about taking ownership of the consequences of one’s actions. This view doesn’t lead people to ignore problems as doing so would have bad consequences and the leader takes responsibility for such consequences. Nor does it lead to over-caution because this too can have bad consequences which the leader will account for. If an employee takes this conception of responsibility on board they ask themselves how they can best aid the business. The slogan of the leader is “What can I achieve?” not “Is it my problem?”.

Encouraging the responsibility of the leader

So responsibility is important and in particular we want to encourage the responsibility of the leader in the workplace. How do we do so? Well there’s presumably dozens of ways to encourage this attitude, many of which readers of this blog probably already use. But two approaches in particular stand out to me.

#1. Trust

No-one will display responsibility unless it’s clear that management trusts them to do so. Make it clear that while your door is open, people should feel free to exercise their judgment on day to day decisions and let them know that they won’t get in trouble for displaying an appropriate level of independence.

#2. Recognition

If people notice a problem that doesn’t fall into their defined area of responsibility they have little motive to address it: it will take away from time they could be focusing on work that they are required to do. To motivate people to display a leader’s responsibility, then, recognize them when they take initiative and go above and beyond their core responsibilities so they know that their extra work does not go unnoticed. How? Well there’s all sorts of ways to do recognition but at WooBoard we use social features and gamification to encourage and align employee behaviours. Recognition is the second key ingredient required to encourage a leader’s sense of responsibility.

Snowballing responsibility

Stanley Milgram was the source of the bad news that started this post: if people don’t take responsibility for their actions, they will do truly terrible things. However, he’s also the source of some good news. In a variation on his original experiment, Milgram had three “subjects” in the same room, all delivering shocks to different learners. Two of these subjects were really actors, who would eventually refuse to continue delivering the shocks. When they did so, the real subject almost always also refused to continue with the shocks. The lesson from our perspective: if enough people in a workplace start publically displaying responsibility, other employees are more likely to do so too. All we need to do, then, is start the responsibility snowball rolling and gravity will do the rest.


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photo credit: le temple du chemisier via photopin cc

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