Should you “throttle” responsibility?

Leaders who are relatively new to learning about the mind’s internal Responsibility Process™ often ask:

“What about the person who is too responsible?”

One such question landed recently after I co-presented a webinar with Zach Nies (VP Products, Rally Software) called The Best Kept Secret of Agile Software Quality. Our message was that quality is a 3-legged stool of process, technology, and people. Most organizations attempt to understand and improve process and technology, but don’t adequately understand how to address the people leg of the stool. That’s where the Responsibility Process helps. The Responsibility Process is a great framework for developing teams and environments of true shared responsibility where people will voluntarily confront and overcome silos and other barriers to quality.

Here’s the question I received later that day: How do we best manage “responsibility throttling”?  At some point, if an individual takes on too much responsibility, his/her effectiveness is compromised.  Is this topic covered in any of your publications?

Great question. And I love the term “throttling.”And most of us realize that over-committing and under-committing are both problems.

There are three conditions worth considering

  1. The individual who takes on too much
  2. The teammate or leader of an individual who takes on too much
  3. The leader who assigns too much and does not get push back

A previous post looked at the first condition. This post will tackle the second condition. I’ll address the third condition in a subsequent post.

I wrote back:

Please don’t ever think of throttling responsibility

What you refer to as taking on too much isn’t responsible at all. It is most likely a mindset of Obligation and is a knee-jerk reaction to “feeling bad if I don’t do something” (which is the mindset of Shame).

This pattern is a common anxiousness that something won’t be addressed, so “I have to” take it on. Remember, we graduate upward from island to island. Someone with too much on his or her plate in our society gets to brag and complain about their importance — a coping mechanism.

No one can take on too much true responsibility — if you are clear that responsibility is defined as owning your power and ability to create, choose, and attract. The most responsible people I know learn how much they can pile on their plates and still be effective. And the most responsible leaders I know understand how to set clear priorities and move everything else aside so their colleagues have breathing room.

I’ve sat in executive meetings in agile organizations and seen a highly responsible CEO test the executives as to whether the action items they signed up to for the coming month and quarter could be accomplished in a sustainable fashion. It was a beautiful thing to watch such dialog. Such leaders believe that one of the worst things they can do is allow their reports to over-commit. The next week I was in a board room with a Senior VP who was piling more and more and more onto his folks to prove he could drive accountability. Guess which organization is thriving?

So what is a well-intentioned leader to do?

First, I recommend you increase your own study and practice of responsibility as taught by the Responsibility Process and the Keys to Responsibility. This will help you acquire a much clearer perspective of your own and others behavior so you will see that you want to encourage true responsibility but perhaps throttle acts of Shame and Obligation — or simply biting off more than can be chewed.

Second, apply the Responsibility Process as a framework for leadership, growth and change to support the agile principles and values of people and interactions, few clear priorities, sustainable pace, continuous learning and improvement. It’s a powerful combination.

Third, and most specifically, create a focused feedback loop for the person who takes on too much so he or she can begin to see what you see in their behavior. Help him to understand the idea of a few clear priorities and sustainable pace.

Let me know your thoughts.

Posted in Responsibility on 01/26/2010 09:32 am
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