We all desire control over the work we have to do and in exchange agree to being held responsible for it. That is the implicit agreement for provision of human labor. Ideally, we would all like to be held responsible for only those outcomes that we can directly control. Yet, we may find ourselves face-to-face with an imbalance between control and responsibility. How do we respond to such imbalances and what are the patterns that emerge? Understanding them may help us recognize who we are.
Consider a 2X2 matrix. Along the horizontal is responsibility, increasing from left to right. Along the vertical is control, rising from bottom to top. The resulting four quadrants indicate degrees of control and responsibility we typically experience. Each quadrant defines a persona in response to the situation. What I hope to explain is that the shoes we fill in and our responses to situations could change depending on, all other things normalized, how much control we enjoy and how much responsibility we are willing to fulfil.
Before we dive in, let us define the labels. By control I mean agency. How much say do we have. How much freedom do we enjoy to decide what we do and how we do. How much of our life is ours to decide. Also, what control is not: It is not control over external triggers — those are beyond us. Yet, we all have control over our response to those triggers.
Responsibility is what we are answerable for. What are we willing to take ownership for. What decisions, if they don’t turn out well, will we be ready to accept blame for. What plans will we commit to. Responsibility is also about care. What do we care about. How much (or what) burden are we willing to carry without shirking.
Now let us walk through the dominant characteristics in each archetype and the signs to watch out for to stop ourselves from falling into the trap of fighting for control and/or responsibility.
The Four Personas in the Control-Responsibility Paradigm
Blamers accept the responsibility that they are entrusted with assuming that control comes pre-packaged with it. When they discover otherwise, what they seek is more leeway to do things their way. They may feel weighed down by the many stakeholders whose expectations they have to manage. And their response is to blame the circumstances, their supervisor, the team. There is an important distinction between control and influence that blamers do not make. They see control as a compulsory prerequisite for their functioning. Since their search is so narrowly defined, blamers may not appreciate adequately things that they may already have. They may not recognize control’s more available close cousin — influence, and the fact that they do not require anyone’s permission to use it. They habitually point to the limited remit they enjoy. It is not surprising then that the excuses blamers offer can seem disingenuous.
Blamers typically find occasions for feedback such as performance appraisals chastening. When they are held liable, they may find it hard to understand why the world does not see their situation. New managers and young leaders can be particularly susceptible here. This is true across functions. Product managers feel aggrieved when business priorities change, developers complain when launch timelines change, and so on. If left unexamined, blamers get caught up in their pursuit of control and end up approaching every situation wallowing in self-pity and wishing they had that one missing ingredient.
One way out of this mindset would be to build a skillset that demands attention. In his book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” Cal Newport recommends we turn down a promotion if we have to and focus instead of getting good before expecting good work. That is necessary practice, in all situations, but may not be sufficient for redressal. Sometimes centralized decision-making is baked into the company culture or one’s boss is a micro-manager and one can’t do much about it, personal competence notwithstanding. The easier thing here would be to recognize this fact and find a better fit elsewhere.
Shirkers, by their location on the system described above, have the luxury of control. They have a big remit but may not be willing to be answerable for everything that happens in their precinct. If they did, they would be more like leaders who understand that accepting responsibility for outcomes they may not directly control is part of the job. Instead, shirkers are likely to shrug and point to the patrolmen on the street. Or to their predecessors from whom they acquired the precinct. They will gripe about inherited debt, poor morale, suboptimal personnel — none of which incidentally they could be held responsible for. While there may be some truth in such a view during transitions in crisis, it can be a sticky crutch.
Shirkers tend to flip their stance depending on the outcome (take responsibility if outcome is positive; abdicate, if negative outcome). Coming up with shifting narratives is a common symptom of shirk-ism. Shirkers may end up being strategic, instead of authentic, in their communication. They may come up with seductive theories to justify events or be deliberately noncommittal/ambiguous in their signaling. Being smart makes it worse. Annie Duke in Thinking in Bets points out that spin doctors, making some of the smartest people, are better at “constructing a narrative that supports your [their] beliefs, rationalizing and framing the data to fit your [their] argument or point of view.”
With experience we are likely to move farther away from those who do the actual work. In the process, we’re also moving away from first-hand accounts and toward information that has been filtered many times over by people with specific motivations. This may be particularly disconcerting for those who like to keep a close handle on proceedings, and may push them toward relinquishing responsibility.
With time, shirkism may make us believe our own well-spun tales. Periodic self-check-ins to make sure we’re not falling prey to this behavior is helpful. But, given our evolutionary tendencies to self-preserve, it is hard for us to catch our own biases. Seeking feedback from peers is more effective. Maintaining a decision journal helps too.
Side note: Sometimes a disparity between control and responsibility may simply be reflective of the nature of work. Herein, the disparity would be a feature, not a bug. For example, strategic functions in an organization may have a lot of agency to make plans without having to bear the responsibility for their execution.
On the surface, those in the remaining two quadrants do not have to endure as much asymmetry in control and responsibility. Yet, that is not the whole truth.
Leaders take responsibility for what’s in their control and oftentimes for things outside. They are willing to accept that everything happens on their watch and regardless of outcome they take responsibility for it. In doing so, they offer protection to the others. On the surface, their tender-heartedness for people can be seen as a weakness, but is always complimented with a toughness on standards. While the shirkers and blamers may be busy doing two jobs: their actual job and the job of managing others’ impressions of how they’re doing their job, true leaders are not interested in solving problems if they can prevent them altogether.
Leaders are likely to have earned their position not by rank but by displaying such traits over time. One side effect of such leadership is that it is contagious. In close quarters of a leader, the blamers and the shirkers may be disincentivized to practise self-seeking behaviors. They may choose to look beyond easy excuses and instead work toward making things and themselves better.
Finally, passersby are those without any skin in the game. They prefer a laidback life. Their attitude is one of aloofness. They may make it explicit early on that they do not wish to participate in the turf war that could be corporate life. These are the more self-assured ones and they should be thanked for their authenticity. Some passersby though may be willing to accept control and responsibility only if both came to them bundled together. Such an aspiration is most often ascribed to those living in their own heads. By and large, passersby are relegated to the position of one who can only mind their own business.
In the framework above, I’ve spent more time talking about the shirkers and blamers — those who grapple with an imbalance in control and responsibility. That is because by far these are the most common archetypes. Wherever we may identify ourselves in the Cartesian system described, that is not unchangeable. To move forward, it is important to build a measure of self-awareness and recognize situations for what they truly are before we respond to them. What do you think?
Thanks to Atul Sinha for reviewing draft versions.