Managers: Are You Responsible “To” or “For” People?

A manager said to me, “I'm responsible for this department of people.”

I asked, “What does that mean?”

He said, “I'm responsible for managing the people. I also define the products and what the people need to deliver.”

I said, “That seems like a lot of work.”

He nodded. “I'm exhausted. I work all the time and can't ever finish.”

I asked, “Why not share the responsibilities? Why work alone? Why not be responsible to the people instead of for the people and products?”

He got that deer in the headlight look.

When we ask managers to take responsibility for other people, we increase the possibility that they micromanage. Too many managers feel they can't delegate because they, the manager, is responsible for other people's work.

What if we changed that responsibility? What if we change from “responsible for” to “responsible to” other people? We might see many changes in behavior, such as self-directed or self-organizing teams.

Self-Directed Teams Take Responsibility for Their Work Practices

We talk a lot about self-organizing teams when we talk about agility. I haven't met too many self-organizing teams.

I have met and worked with many self-directed teams. These teams:

  • Understood their goals for the products and services they developed or supported.
  • Clarified where they could make decisions and where they could not. (The boundaries of their decisions.)
  • Practiced collaboration in many ways. They decided when to pair, swarm, and mob. They also decided when to work alone.
  • Decided how to work. They decided on their boards, how they would use all their technical practices, what to measure, and more.

In Practical Ways to Manage Yourself, I suggested that teams can—and should!—decide these things on their own:

  • Project practices: how to organize the work.
  • Work practices, such as tools and boards.
  • Technical practices, such as test practices.

Why? Because especially agile teams might want to experiment with these practices on a regular basis. Teams might want small kaizens. They might want to wait for a larger retrospective.

But managers rarely can help with these practices. Except, maybe to say, “Please decide.” I put these practices all the way on the right in the delegation continuum.

I prefer when the team does all its own hiring work, but I have been in organizations where the best I could do was limited consensus. Even then, when a manager hires anyone over the objections of the team? You deserve what you get.

I don't see how to get the outcomes the organization needs if the manager makes most of the decisions for the team. However, managers can change their behaviors to be responsible “to” a team, instead of “for” a team.

Behavior Differences in Responsible “To” vs. Responsible “For”

When a manager is responsible to a team, the manager might use these behaviors:

  1. Verify the team understands the goal for the work.
  2. Delegates the problem(s) and outcomes, not tasks.
  3. Explain the results the manager needs to see. If there is a regulatory component, discuss the regulatory needs.
  4. Establish guidelines and constraints for the work—if necessary.
  5. Offer reinforcing feedback so people do more of what everyone perceives as useful and less of what is not that useful.

There might be more behaviors, but we can start there.

When we are responsible “for,” we are the center of the work. We check in with everyone all the time. Or we check on people and their work.

Instead, when we are responsible “to,” we create a system of work that more people tend to enjoy. Including the manager. We create an environment and culture where everyone can contribute to the best of their abilities.

Every time I've done this, I had to take a deep breath and say, “I realize I'm changing how I'm asking you to work. I'm nervous because I'm asking you to take responsibility I used to take.” Then, I explained what I wanted. I asked if anyone needed more information.

Every time I've done this, people have been much harder on themselves than I ever have been. They've let me know (in plenty of time) when they had trouble. And they enjoyed the work much more.

Discuss These Behaviors with Your Manager

The next time your manager wants you to take responsibility “for” work, have a conversation about where you need to control and where you don't. Your boss might not realize what he or she is asking for.

Create an environment where people control their own work so you don't have to. Be responsible “to” others, not “for” them. Everyone will enjoy their work.

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