Shifting the Burden of Responsibility

The business world has always been critical of middle management. They don’t actually do anything. They aren’t good at what they do. They don’t make any decisions. Regardless of the level at which management positions exist, the primary responsibility is to make decisions. With decision making comes susceptibility to loss, and therefore risk. One of the greatest tricks of the trade for business people in management is what I like to call “shifting the burden of responsibility”.

Growing up, especially in America, most people were taught the lessons of responsibility at an early age. Responsibility is seen as a cornerstone of a set of good personal values. For example, I was allowed by my parents to buy a pet (in this case some fish) that I was responsible for taking care of. I was taught how to clean the tank, feed them and dealt with the repercussions of fish-death when I didn’t fulfill my responsibilities. As I grew older and learned why these values were important, I was given more and more responsibilities. Not everyone has the fortunate support of good parents to properly aid them in understanding the value of responsibility, however there is at least a general consensus that responsibility is a good value to have.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to realize the people who are structurally more suited to having more responsibilities are the ones who are actually better at shifting them off to someone. To these people having responsibilities is a risk-laden burden and the ability to reduce and mitigate risk is often a value that supersedes responsibility.

Take for example the HR manager from a global telecomm who decides to outsource her IT project to a big five firm. She has a responsibility by her manager to deliver a project because she’s given a budget and therefore the responsibility. Like all IT projects, there is a serious risk of failure. So why make the decision to use the big five firm? If it’s her responsibility to deliver the project to her stakeholders, she can effectively shift this responsibility on to the outsourcing partner when the project fails and conversely decide to reap all of the personal benefits of responsibility when the project succeeds. It’s a win-win scenario that reduces her own risk, while still providing the capability for her to move up the corporate ladder.

I’ve seen this time and time again in business – especially big business. Generally speaking, the larger the business, the easier it is to shift responsibility.

This is what I believe to be the fundamental difference between large and small businesses. If your fish dies in a big business you can shift the responsibility to the tank operator, the water re-filler, or the feeder and life for you goes on. In a small business, if your fish dies, it’s your fault and can have serious implications on whether your business continues to float.

Personally I like to work with people who accept responsibility on their own account, even if means that they have more failures on their track record. In the long run, these people are more akin to the characteristics of successfully growing firms, and I believe is the defining characteristic of employees that can grow at scale as opposed to those that cannot. If we had more people accepting real responsibilities rather than shifting them elsewhere, we’d have more productive people and better businesses.