The Responsibility Myth

When deadlines are being missed, when there is struggle among team members, when there are important tasks that are falling through the cracks, or when you know you are not working as efficiently or effectively as you could be, what can you do?

One of the most common solutions I hear to these kinds of problems is this:  “we need to get clear about our roles and responsibilities”.

Unfortunately that may solve the problems temporarily, but it is rarely, if ever, a long term fix.  The implied belief is that if our roles and responsibilities are clear, i.e., everyone knows what they are supposed to do, things will get done and run smoothly.

I say that belief  is a myth.

Roles and responsibilities are a kind of boundary separating one persons role from another.  They are useful when it comes to delegating tasks and managing work, but are in and of themselves insufficient to support and encourage teamwork.

If all we do is define the boundaries between people (in other words, my role or job vs. yours), it will only be a matter of time before something else falls through the cracks and we find ourselves attempting to yet again redefine roles and responsibilities.

Besides, does this diagram below really look like a team to you?  Yet the org chart (aka hierarchy) is exactly the context we are reinforcing when we focus purely on defining roles and responsibilities.


What is missing from Roles and Responsibilities?

Accountability to each other.  If we want to support and encourage teamwork I believe we must focus on clarifying the inter-connections between people that ensure the relationships work and the work gets done.  In defining our role we clarify what we do.  Add to that defining our promises to each other and you create the basis for accountable relationships.

Want to stop things from falling through the cracks?  Want to empower people to take personal responsibility for doing what needs to be done to produce the desired result and stop worrying about whose job it is to do what?

Clarify the connections between team members, the agreements they must make with each other to ensure success, and you begin to build a bridge between the model of organization we have inherited and the practices we need now to work together effectively in today’s dynamic environment.

Consider questions such as: What promises does each team member make to the rest of the team that contributes to the result we are committed to producing together?  What promises do we specifically make to each other and what do we need from each other to keep those promises?

When team members make promises to each other they empower their working relationships.

And they start to think and act like a team. While certainly not a sophisticated image, doesn’t this look a lot more like a team? You get the picture!

Now will things still get missed?

Absolutely.  We will never think of everything, unanticipated circumstances inevitably arise, and there is always something new for us to learn.  Yet when we focus on clarifying the inter-relationships as opposed to defining the “boxes” that separate people, the conversation shifts from being a reflection on the past, solving the problem that we didn’t define roles clearly enough (or blaming someone), to one of learning and adaptation, collaborating about what do we need to do next together given the information and circumstances we have now.

By focusing not just on what we do or need to do as individuals, but also on what we promise to each other we begin to cultivate accountable relationships among team members and ultimately foster an accountable culture.

So why is defining roles and responsibilities so compelling as “the solution”?

Perhaps the primary reason is because it is what we have been taught to do and how we have been trained to think about how  organizations are supposed to work.  Although I think there is another reason that may get in the way of challenging this status quo approach.  If you dig deeper, often behind the solution of “defining roles and responsibilities” there is a judgment that people are not being accountable.  Clarifying roles and responsibilities is seen as a solution to that problem.

Roles and responsibilities certainly seem a lot safer and a lot less confrontational to talk about.  It is perceived to be an objective approach, carrying the perception of making things cleaner and simpler and somehow less personal.  We also seem to think that holding people accountable is the bosses or team leaders job so as team members this is often our only access to the conversations required to clear things up when things break down.

Is it possible that talking about boundaries helps us avoid the difficult task of dealing directly with our commitments to and relationships with each other.  Or is it that we have not been sufficiently trained in the mindset and/or the skills essential to create and sustain accountable relationships?

Perhaps it is a combination of both.  What do you think?

If you are interested in learning more about the mindset, principles and skills of creating and sustaining accountable relationships go to http://www.theartofaccountability.com.  Our June 2010 Webinar Series is Open for Enrollment Now and Begins on June 7th.


Enter A Comment

ava diamond   |   25 May 2010   |   Reply

I love this article, Susan. One of the exercises I use with teams has them outline for each of their key relationships: What am I willing to give? and What do I need to receive?”

Once they are clear about this, they have that conversation with each of their key relationships. Together, they identify the gap between what the other person needs, and what they’re willing to give, and vice versa.

This gap is where the dialog takes place, as they work out their commitments to each other. They walk away with an agreement. It’s an energizing process that eliminates a lot of “guess what’s on my mind.”

I love these two questions you’ve posed:
What promises does each team member make to the rest of the team that contributes to the result we are committed to producing together?
What promises do we specifically make to each other and what do we need from each other to keep those promises?

Thanks for a thought provoking article!

Susan Mazza   |   26 May 2010   |   Reply

That is a great exercise Ava. I appreciate your using the word gap in this context. By closing the gap of understanding by creating agreements we do eliminate the “guess what’s on my mind”, as well as the expectations that go along with thinking others should know what we mean and what we expect.

Thanks for adding to the thinking here.

Mark Sturgell, CBC   |   08 June 2010   |  

By no means do I disagree with anything that has been written here, in Susan’s article or the many comments. In fact, i agree wholeheartedly. However, we may be missing a critical nuance in the thesis that “role definitions” are the problem, rather than focusing on how “role definitions” are used and people’s general response to them.

Roles, and mutual expectations of one another’s roles, are important to team success. Some of these roles may be pre-determined and “defined”; some may be more situational. In any case, we all have primary, secondary, tertiary… roles on a team. All team members must share a common role, which is critical and often missing, which leads to the problems described in this article and thread of discussion: that is, team members must have a primary focus to support and pursue the mission and purpose of the team.

Roles can provide necessary focus and a healthy way of organizing effort just as they can get in the way, lead to “siloing”, etc. One key to success is recognizing that regardless of your defined role, your default responsibility is to pursue and the support the team’s mission in collaboration with other team members. One might say this is Job No. 1.

My experience in over 20 years of coaching and working with teams is that lack of role awareness is one of a handful of root causes of team disfunction. The problem arises once those roles are “defined” – and how they are defined – and especially when people do not support the team with their discretionary behavior.

Focus your attentions on self-motivated discretionary behaviors that support team mission and you will see significant increases in collective performance and satisfaction. Susan offers excellent suggestions and do a few commenters. Right vs. Wrong and Win-Lose conflicts will turn into innovative, collaborative, idea-generating conflict and We-All-Win competition.

Read “The Measure of a Leader”, by Daniels and Daniels. Excellent book which provides research and perspective on this and similar issues.

Kapil   |   25 May 2010   |   Reply

Suzan, Great Post! In today’s scenario this is an issue which is seeking attention of management traditions and organisation hierarchies. If we take the diagram example the team members are the actual assets who are the driving force and providing value to the company. The titles, hierarchies maybe relevant from process point of view, but they might affect individual ideation, innovation very often.


Susan Mazza   |   26 May 2010   |   Reply

Excellent point Kapil – the structure often gets in the way of the individuals making the best contribution they have to offer. Thanks for your comment.

Sonia Di Maulo   |   25 May 2010   |   Reply


Wow, another great post that, like Monica, mirrors my thoughts and hopes for future project guidelines!

Lately, the idea of accountability partners and teams has been a central theme in my life and consulting/coaching conversations. I recently read a great article entitled:

The Peer Principle (New research reveals peer accountability as the ultimate driver of performance) http://www.businessweek.com/managing/content/apr2010/ca20100428_172881.htm

It reinforces the ideas in your post – your suggestions on how to execute this are great! I am launching a new project this week and roles/responsibilities are on the agenda. I will now add accountability between team members as a way to create successful connections and project outcomes!

Thanks, Susan!

Susan Mazza   |   26 May 2010   |   Reply

Thanks for sharing this article Sonia. I’d be interested in hearing about the difference adding this conversation to the mix in your new project makes.

Monica Diaz   |   25 May 2010   |   Reply

As usual, you mirror my experience! Defining roles is comforting because it is something to do. Straightforward, open and shut, done when its done! Committing to eachother on the other hand is a living entity! You commit daily. You face each other and figure it out every single time. In energizes and revitalizes like nothing else. Working on the connectedness is a bit messy, but so engaging! Accountability is definitely an art, and you master it!

Susan Mazza   |   26 May 2010   |   Reply

“Committing to each other is a living entity.” Well said Monica!

Jane Perdue   |   26 May 2010   |   Reply

Susan — terrific post! Accountability and ownership are key to successful professional and personal outcomes. One element I would add is that of accountability to oneself, e.g. taking personal initiative to make things happen be it going beyond the scope of job duties (without having to be told) or partnering with a colleague to mutually define what we own and how we’ll hold each other accountable for completing it.

Susan Mazza   |   26 May 2010   |   Reply

Great addition Jane. Taking personal initiative to make things happen is not only an act of personal accountability, it is an act of leadership.

Drew Hawkins   |   26 May 2010   |   Reply

Good post! The one disadvantage to being wrapped up into responsibilities is that it eventually develops silos within a business. Silos don’t lead to innovation as much as collaboration does. When people have a “it’s not my problem it’s theirs” mentality, nothing good will come from it.

Susan Mazza   |   26 May 2010   |   Reply

Excellent point Drew. Getting “wrapped up in responsibilities” as you put it is the primary source of silos. If we want to break down those silos and create a “we” rather than a “us” vs. “them” mentality, I believe we must shift our focus to our commitments to each other in service of the outcomes we are accountable for producing,

Jeremy Nash   |   27 May 2010   |   Reply

Your blog post, Susan, and the comments are all thought-provoking. Ava, in particular, I like the accessible language you use for conducting a conversation too few of us feel comfortable having yet need to have.
Blame it on the time of day (actually night, here in Singapore) that I’m writing this, but if we replaced these nouns: accountability, responsibility, roles, e.g. and distinguished the actions they could actually be referring to, we’d see whether we’d be accountablizing, role-ing, etc. Hmm … for that matter, what would we say about our place on the org chart … that we’re boxing?! 🙂

Susan Mazza   |   27 May 2010   |   Reply

Very funny!

Your point about using accessible language is so important Jeremy. It is too easy to “hide” behind the terms we have gotten used to using rather than mindfully choose language that provokes our thinking and raises our awareness.

So great to see you and thanks for stopping in all the way from Singapore!

Paul McConaughy (@minutrition)   |   27 May 2010   |   Reply

I highly recommend “The Power of Pull” by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison in the context of this post. John Seely Brown’s story of his surfing neighbors on Maui provide the answer for me. All members of the team are pursuing excellence in a world that has enough for everyone. No one believes that their success will diminish another team members chance for success.

I believe there is benefit in knowing what team members are taking responsibility for so there is operational efficiency, but it is a team in name only (TINO) if someone outside the team is defining roles and responsibilities. If that is the case it only confirms the lack of confidence of “management” that the team can do what they have been assigned.

Susan Mazza   |   28 May 2010   |   Reply

Thanks for the book recommendation Paul.

Good points. I’d add that when a group of individuals are truly working as a team they are capable of far more then they would if they were just executing on their individual “jobs”. The whole truly is greater than the sum of it’s parts.

Mary Ann Reilly   |   29 May 2010   |   Reply

Susan, Your blog informed mine: http://mhsredesign.ning.com/profiles/blogs/acting-like-a-team

Thank you for the inspiration.

Susan Mazza   |   31 May 2010   |   Reply

Glad to have sparked your thinking Mary Ann. Appreciate you stopping by and letting me know.

Rick Ross   |   29 May 2010   |   Reply

You noted “roles and responsibilities are a kind of boundary”. Of course, boundaries are by definition limiting. Companies want employees to be both engaged and innovative, yet limitations serve neither end. Despite this, adherence to the practices that produce them remain common.

I appreciate this post for its willingness to challenge the status quo. It makes an excellent point of which all leaders should take note.

Thanks Susan!

Susan Mazza   |   31 May 2010   |   Reply

Great point Rick – by focusing so much on the boundaries we impede both engagement and innovation, as well as collaboration.

I am looking forward to working with you in The Art of Accountability Webinar starting next week.

Thomas Waterhouse   |   30 May 2010   |   Reply

I think that we must be impeccably clear about our boundaries. We must also be clear that healthy boundaries have permeability, allowing an exchange of our “goods” without acceptance of the “bads”, such as blame for the failing of a corporate endeavor. Boundaries should define roles and responsibilities, yet if they are mature, then they allow for flexibility, intimacy, expression, and acceptance (in fact, an embracing) that “nobody is smarter than all of us”. Healthy boundaries allow for “mutual interdependence”, and that point where all of our individual circles overlap becomes a powerful vortex of synergy and productivity! Thank you Susan… Respect!

Susan Mazza   |   31 May 2010   |   Reply

Your comment is packed with powerful points Thomas. Thank you for adding such richness to the discussion.

It is definitely not an either/or here. To your point, clarity about our boundaries, in this case in the form of roles and responsibilities, is important to healthy relationships.

Perhaps one of the best indications that an organization has likely defined roles and responsibilities in a way that is not healthy for the organization is the extent to which there is an “us vs them” dynamic.

Susan Mazza   |   08 June 2010   |   Reply

Thank you Mark for adding richness and clarity in your comments.

You make a few points I want to emphasize: “lack of role awareness is one of a handful of root causes of team dysfunction.” – Absolutely, this is only one cause, not THE cause.

The problem arises once those roles are “defined” – and how they are defined – and especially when people do not support the team with their discretionary behavior… Focus your attentions on self-motivated discretionary behaviors that support team mission.” I think essentially this points to the difference between being accountable for your “defined tasks” vs. being accountable to the team’s shared commitment and doing whatever it takes, defined or not.

I believe a team’s success requires that we define BOTH clear roles AND promises to the team/other team members. I think it is our promises that ultimately drive the discretionary behavior you distinguished here. Defining roles is very useful and many times essential, but they are not enough to ensure collaboration or success.