Are ownership and responsibility something you take or something you are given?

(Almost) all managers want their team to take ownership for executing tasks and embrace the responsibility which comes with it. They do not want to have to play such a leading role in managing tasks, but would rather that people take responsibility themselves and get on with the job.

Many of them also say that they wish they were given more responsibility by their boss, that they feel like their boss never gives them the space to work on a project which they would like, and that they are ready to take on more responsibility, if only they were given the chance.

Therein lies an interesting and telling paradox.

That is that we — as high-level managers — expect to be given more responsibility. And maybe even say that we would have greater ownership for new initiatives and processes if we were given greater responsibility. At the same time, we ask for those we manage to take responsibility themselves instead of waiting for us to give it to them.

So, either we are in the exceptional situation that we have a manager who is bad at delegating responsibility, whilst we manage teams who are bad at taking on the responsibility we give them, or we are victims of the inherent paradox between being the giver or the receiver of responsibility.

The ownership paradox

When we ask managers about what they experience from their employees, the answer is often that the team seem slightly insecure and that they need a little too much ongoing input and help with tasks or that they do not completely meet the organisation’s needs. That is why, as managers, we contribute with ideas and input to help the team move further, when asked. As one senior manager described it: ‘I feel like I just get given version 0.7 of something and my middle managers expect me to help finish it off. It would be nice if they came to me with something that was at least version 0.9.’

If you ask the team about their experiences with their manager in the same situation, they answer surprisingly often that they experience this sparring as controlling — sometimes bordering on micromanagement — and at the very least as evidence of a manager’s need to keep hold of an element of ownership in the process. And middle managers experience that they are not allowed to take full responsibility.

In the case named above, the middle manager reflected that he actually took responsibility and involved a key stakeholder — his boss — early on. But he also had an overview and had taken responsibility for executing the task: ‘I often provide a draft so I can get my senior manager’s input and so I don’t end up going down a different route than he would like, because then I’d just have to correct it later.’ Implying that the senior manager would get involved at some point anyway, and that it is therefore important to get him involved early on in order to avoid having to do double the work.

It is interesting to note that the receiver and the giver in this situation both want the same thing: to ensure that the middle manager runs with the ball and takes responsibility. However, both behave in a way the other sees as inappropriate. As a result of this, the senior manager loses confidence in the middle manager’s ability to rise to the challenge, and the middle manager loses his feeling of ownership in executing the task, as he feels that the senior manager is controlling and quality-checking his work.

Acknowledging the social ego

The researcher and sociologist Erving Goffman writes about ‘face’; a form of social ego. That is, an image we have of ourselves which we want to present when coming into contact with others. In other words: we have an image of ourselves, and we spend energy presenting this image as well as having others confirm it when meeting them. So, when a senior manager is asked to ‘contribute with input’ to a text, an idea, a process or something else, the majority of senior managers want to show that they are competent, diligent, professional, etc. Therefore, it occurs surprisingly often that, although the middle manager wants acknowledgement and approval of their idea, the senior manager sees it as an invitation from a colleague to give their input. Perhaps you have similar experiences of always having to expect changes when you send something in for approval? And that can be irritating. But at the same time, perhaps you have also experienced that you rarely have no comments when given something to review? In which case, you are just as affected by the ownership paradox as everyone else.

The author of this article has also experienced it in a number of cases in an advisory role. One example comes from a consulting agency who were working on their mission statement. A few key employees were tasked with coming up with suggestions for how it should be formulated and what it should say. They gave a presentation, and afterwards they regularly invited management to feedback meetings. At the third meeting, management started to realise that the employees were not asking for feedback and suggestions for improvement; they were asking for approval and acknowledgement. And every time management provided suggestions — well-meaning, because they thought the team wanted their input — it just irritated the employee team and contributed to their feelings of being micromanaged and having their responsibility for the process taken away.

The solution is so simple and obvious (and is on page one of all books on feedback): Always start a meeting by clarifying what the goal is as well as which roles each person is expected to fulfil. Are we a team who create the best solution together (managers often think like this), or are we a middle manager or employee presenting their solution for approval and maybe also a nice pat on the back? If we both see the situation differently, we often end up re-establishing the ownership paradox and we do not create the ownership we actually want.

The paradox can be seen at all levels: when the board of directors in a company is presented with something in a board meeting, many directors feel a subconscious need to influence, ask critical questions or take part in the discussion in some other way. Not just because of the result, but also, according to Goffman, because of their image of themselves as someone who actively contribute, remain critical and is not just on the board of directors for show. And they want to actively demonstrate that.

What can you do about that, then?

So, the next time you, as a manager, feel like your team are asking for your input yet again instead of just getting on with their work, remember that it sometimes means that they feel like they have taken responsibility and ownership and just want to show you the results. Also remember that it can therefore be extremely demotivating to leave with corrections and ideas, which might just make them less eager to take the initiative the next time.

And the next time you feel like your manager is getting involved unnecessarily in a process you have taken responsibility for, tell them what you need from them to move further. Is it feedback? Is it help to ensure that you are supporting the strategy with your actions? Or are you providing your suggestions for how to solve a problem and you want approval?

Responsibility is both something you take and something you are given. And ownership requires trust from both sides — from the leader who needs to believe that their employee can rise to the challenge, and from the employee or middle manager who needs to feel like they have space to solve a task in their own way.You will find concrete tools for getting your employees to take on ownership for tasks and embracing responsibility in the article “Make your addressee a hero and motivate them more”, which can also be found in this magazine. Read the article and learn about how you can help your employees take ownership for the progress and tasks you want. In brief, it is about putting your addressee in a hero position and speaking to their goals to create a strong WHY.

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