The power of responsibility

With great power comes great responsibility.
Various sources

I’m sure you’ve heard this quote before. It’s a good one, often used to reinforce the need for people to not slough off their priorities. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all fine and dandy, but I don’t really like it. It works for superhero movies and parental figures. It fails in my mind because it puts more of a burden on responsibility, rather than the sense of freedom one gets from being responsible.

Instead, I prefer this variation:

With responsibility comes a sense of great empowerment.
– Me. ‘Cuz I just said it.

I know what you’re going to say…

“Responsibility is a pain,” you say, cursing the mere thought that it could be anything else. “Whenever anyone says: ‘You have to take responsibility for the things you do!’, all I get is trouble! I don’t want responsibility!”

Everyone remembers hearing seemingly endless tirades a kid, and having their parents, teachers, older siblings (if they had ’em), and elders tell them about how being responsible was important, how it was crucial to the survival of mankind that they feed the dog, clean the goldfish bowl, and mow the lawn. Everyone remembers the stern finger-wagging and sterner gaze about how their lives were going nowhere if they didn’t shape up and do what was expected. The punishment for failure sometimes meant not being able to sit properly for a few hours.

Hence the problem with people wanting to take on responsibility in their jobs. As a manager, I’ve seen this dozens of times — and struggled with it myself. There are those who avoid responsibility at all costs, and there are those who take on far too much responsibility. This applies not just to staff but also to their managers. (Yep, this also lends back to my point on delegation. But I digress.)

Responsibility is a fundamental part of any career — any successful, growing career. If you read that statement properly, then you picked up on my point: You can avoid responsibility, but don’t expect to go places. In fact, if you go so far as to be irresponsible, you can pretty much wipe clean any credit you’d earned.

Being responsible requires two leaps of faith.

First, from yourself. You have to first show that you’re willing to accept responsibility. Accepting it doesn’t mean receiving work: it means knowing that you are the one in charge of the solution, the one who’s going to be asked to address problems and create the solutions. You do that through doing your daily job, demonstrating that you can not only deliver with consistency, but ask for more.

The second leap of faith is from your manager. The leap can be minor — such as assigning a larger project. When it’s a major leap (and it can be), it’s often a test. There’s not always a clear indication that someone is ready for a lot of responsibility, just a possibility. That initial assignment can be just as daunting for a manager as it is for the one receiving the work.

Responsibility is not solely an individual event — one person’s abilities affect those around them. Consider the following examples:

Someone who steps up to the challenge is someone who not only gains the respect of management, but also demonstrates the capability to others around them. A single responsible person on a team contributes to a team’s overall success and outlook.

Someone who avoids the responsibility is neutral, to some extent. They make still contribute to a project and a team, they cannot be tasked with anything significant, which imposes a larger burden on those in lead positions. These people are often left behind while others are promoted.

These are people who ignore the responsibility given to them, or fail to understand how their actions will affect those around them. A single irresponsible person at the very least often increases work for those around them, and can lead to poor quality or incomplete (failed) work. On teams, this leads to lowered morale, and can ruin the dynamics of a team.

A key point that everyone needs to know, manager and staff member alike, is that responsibility is never given — responsibility is taken.

I cannot go to anyone on my team and give them the mantle of ownership for a given task. Or rather, I can, but that act is meaningless. It’s like offering food to someone who isn’t hungry.  Someone must take responsibility when it is offered. Only when it is taken and acted upon does responsibility truly exist.

Responsibility exists at all levels, too. The higher you are in an organisation, the more responsibility you (generally) have. You can’t pass off responsibility to others — you merely allow someone else to take direct responsibility from you. You are still accountable for that decision, and it’s a poor manager who fingers someone else for a responsible act, rather than stand up and accept the blame for things gone wrong.

Okay, so where does the “empowerment” come into all of this? I’ve rambled on for 869 words, and I still haven’t addressed that point.

Ever done something challenging? I don’t mean that 2,000 word essay or the 3 hour exam in university. I mean having been handed something hard, something when you first saw it were actually (even slightly) scared of it, to turn it around and successfully deliver? Remember that feeling?

You think it was elation from success, and to some degree, you’re right. It’s a validation of your abilities, that you handled and controlled. That’s empowerment. That’s the sense of knowing you’re capable, able, and trusted to run with important work. Even with critical, life-supporting duties (witness the staff of an ER some time — hopefully on good terms), and you’ll see empowerment in its truest form.

As a manager, I not only look for those willing to take on responsibility, I rely on them. I cannot do my job without them being able to do theirs. And as a staff member (remember, I report to those above me), I want to expand my own horizons by doing the difficult, and know that delivering the right solution helps not only me but those I work with.

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