Never Take Responsibility

This is a guest post by Robby Slaughter

We all want engaged employees who are highly productive, efficient and upbeat at work. The challenge is that in so many organizations, workplace morale is mediocre at best. We work in cultures where people do the minimum because they don’t see any reason to put in more effort.

A couple of years ago I took part in a panel discussion where this came up. Someone asked:

Sometimes I feel like I’m nagging other people to get things done. Do you have any techniques to help get commitments out of people to help make this process less painful?

Chances are you’ve experienced this yourself. So first, let’s explain why this happens. Why don’t people want to make commitments at work? Why does it seem like you’re the only one that actually gets stuff done?

The reason is actually pretty simple: nobody cares as much as you about things that are most important to you. They are busy worrying about their own problems!

So what should you do when you want other people to get things done?

What not to do:

  • Do not do any part of the work for them.  It might seem like you are saving someone else time by setting them up or finishing their work. But really you’re just communicating that they don’t need to take responsibility for the entire task.
  • Do not remind them to do the work or ask for status updates. Doing so does show urgency, but it also indicates they don’t need to keep track of the task. You’re going to be managing the project as well as their time.
  • Do not correct their errors. People need to make mistakes so they can  understand the consequences. Even if you explain what you are fixing and why, you still don’t teach them that they need to avoid making the error in the first place.
  • Don’t create high stakes. Like the fable of the boy who cried wolf, the world is probably not going to end if the project is not done. No one believes these sensational claims and they make the workplace less sincere.

With this big list of what not to do, it sounds like you are out of options. Why do these techniques backfire and what should you do instead?

Give responsibility, don’t take it

All four points above are examples of taking away responsibility. If you make it easy for someone to take the easy, self-indulgent path, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Instead, you want people to care about results and have a sense of autonomy about doing the right thing for the right reasons.

The key elements of empowerment are authority, mastery, and responsibility. Your colleagues must feel that they have the right to complete work in the way they see fit (authority), that they are uniquely qualified to do the work (mastery) and that the quality of the result is up to them (responsibility).

So instead of saying “Can you do this for me?” try “I know you have the skills to do this project… do you want to take charge of figuring out how best to get it done?”

Change your conversations

In fact, you can turn every conversation into an empowering one simply by phrasing it in terms of authority, mastery and responsibility:

  • “Don’t worry, I can finish up the project” can become “I’m so glad you’re putting the finishing touches on the project.”
  • “How is the project coming along?” can become “I’d love to see how things are going so I can help get you more resources if you need them.”
  • “There were some errors, but I corrected them” can become “Happy to do a second look if you need me to, but I trust you to make sure the final project is defect free.”
  • “If you don’t meet the deadline, we may lose this client” can become “The client has given us a deadline, but I don’t know if it’s reasonable. What do you think?”

Try empowering your coworkers instead of taking responsibility from them. That’s a sure path to increased employee engagement.

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“You will always be responsible for the things you have tamed”

Read another opinion

Image by SliceofNYC


  1. Hello Robert

    I love the graphic at the end of the post, it says it all.

    As a parent I experience the truth of it. Whilst my natural desire is to protect and care for my children, I have to be conscious of taking away their responsibility and their capacity to own their lives, to assume responsibility, to make mistakes, to learn, to improve.

    And I have to think long term. Just this week my 11 year old daughter baked. It did not work out as expected and she was disappointed. What did I do? Acknowledge and compliment her on taking initiative, taking the risk. And then her mother sat with her and they had a conversation around what she could differently. This is where my wife added her cooking expertise into the equation.

    The next day our daughter baked again and added in chocolate cookies – without any help from anyone. She did a great job: it tasted just fine. We all acknowledged her initiative. And praised her for the quality of her work. She beamed. What happened next?

    The following day she baked again and tried something new. This time the chocolate was in the centre and melted just right. Delicious! Really delicious. We acknowledged her again for taking initiative, taking risks, experimenting…..

    What do we have now in the house? A young lady who relates to herself as a capable baker of bread with chocolate! And because of that we get free bread from time to time! Everyone has won.

    There is a profound lesson here for all who wish to listen/learn/act.

    At your service and with my love

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