This article was first published on Medium on 8 November 2021.
“You got this,” someone says to you. “I really don’t.” you think silently to yourself.
During the course of my career, I've been a part of several big and complex initiatives that involved different organisations and many, many stakeholders. Each time, those involved had to work together to stand any chance of achieving the ambitious shared outcome, but the human dynamics and organisational politics hampered progress and threatened our chances of success. What I observed, and what I felt, was a lack of clarity around outcomes, roles and responsibilities and a lack of honest dialogue around our individual and collective needs.
Now when I find myself in this context, or coaching a leadership team comprising various stakeholders and perspectives, I first check we all have clarity on what the shared outcome actually is - this is not something I would ever assume or take for granted. Next, I use these 4 questions to check our team alignment before we all walk out the (currently virtual) door:
Who is responsible for delivering the outcome?
Who is he/she accountable to?
Whose trust does he/she need so they can get on and do their job?
Whose support and engagement does he/she need to fulfil their responsibility?
This is about being clear on what you are personally responsible for as well as what others are responsible for. The most important part of this for me is that everyone understands that ultimate decision-making rights sit with the person who is responsible for the outcome.
Too often, people are willing to pile in with their opinion but no one steps forward to take responsibility for the outcome. Sometimes, there is reticence to make a sole person responsible - shared outcome, shared responsibility. This sounds great and in the spirit of collaboration. But the reality is that wherever I have seen a desire for a shared sense of responsibility, the reality is that there tends to be none - through the diffusion of responsibility, people feel absolved of their personal responsibility. Roles and remits get confused and no one knows who decision-making rights sit with.
In the context I describe where you have many different stakeholders, there can be a tendency for those stakeholders to want to make decisions or at least be consulted on every decision made. This is consensus decision-making and tends to result in issues remaining unresolved and progress is slow. I have found that making the link between responsibility and decision-making explicit is critical to success and pace of progress.
Who is responsible for this outcome?
What decisions will the responsible person/entity be making?
If you are responsible for delivering an outcome on behalf of a stakeholder, they should and will hold you to account. There have been occasions when I have found someone desperate for responsibility and empowerment, but unwilling to be held to account. They want to be left entirely alone to do what they want to do in the way they want to do it. Like it or not, when you are responsible for delivering a shared outcome and you have stakeholders who need reassurance, you cannot avoid accountability. If you do, you will damage trust.
Being responsible means providing that stakeholder(s) with assurances on both the outcome and your approach. Holding someone to account, however, does not mean micromanaging their decisions and activities. The reluctance that some stakeholders may feel to relinquish decision-making powers is remedied by appropriate accountability mechanisms that enable those stakeholders to ensure their interests are taken into account.
If you have taken responsibility for an outcome, it’s important you know who you are accountable to. If you are a stakeholder, you need to know what the mechanism is through which you can hold the responsible person to account. Everyone needs to have clear expectations about how this will work.
If I am the one responsible, who am I accountable to and how?
If I am a stakeholder, how can I hold the one responsible to account?
What are the mechanisms through which this will happen?
When people talk about empowerment, often what they are referring to is trust. Whether it manifests as interested stakeholders getting the long screwdriver out, managers tasking different individuals to do the same thing or teammates self-tasking and duplicating your efforts, an absence of trust is what a lot of people mean when they say they don't feel empowered. If you ask someone to take responsibility for something, you have to trust them.
Trust is not blind. Trusting does not mean you don't ask any questions or hold someone accountable. But it does require you to believe in that person and to show them that you believe. If you make someone responsible for something, but then ask them to run every decision they make past you, you are not trusting them. The impact of this is that it will hamper their progress, discourage them from taking proper responsibility and ownership, and damage their self-esteem. None of which is going to lead to high performance or successful outcomes.
As the one responsible, you need to build trust with your stakeholders - accountability is a key part of this - but with trust there is always an element of risk, of signing up to the unknown. You need to provide those people with the assurance they need via accountability mechanisms, but it’s also important that you are able to say who you need to trust you. We shy away from this type of conversation because trust is about emotion and it feels messy. But guess what? Humans are messy. I have found that the very act of telling someone that it is important to you that they trust you to deliver this outcome, whilst agreeing the accountability mechanisms, can have a significant positive impact on the human dynamic and individual and team effectiveness.
If I am the one responsible, who do I need to trust me? Have I earned that trust?
If I am a stakeholder, who needs me to trust them? Am I demonstrating that trust?
Another misconception about responsibility and trust is that you just leave them to it. But few things can be delivered single-handedly, particularly in the context I describe above. Where someone has taken responsibility for delivering a shared outcome, they will need engagement from their stakeholders. Being a stakeholder instead of the one responsible does not mean that you wash your hands of it. As a stakeholder, you need to help set the person responsible up for success. This means holding them to account, trusting them, and providing them with the support, resources and engagement necessary to enable them to fulfil their responsibility. It means having their back, helping to remove obstacles and taking an interest.
During my career, I have been put in situations where it has been made clear to me that I am responsible for something and I will be held to account for delivering it. But when I have asked for resources or for the political clout and support of my stakeholders, I was met with silence. If you do this to someone, you are setting them up to fail. You cannot make someone responsible for something, and hold them accountable to that, when they do not have the means to fulfil that responsibility. From my own experience, I can tell you it is an incredibly stressful and isolating place to be.
If I am the one responsible, whose support and engagement do I need to successfully deliver the outcome I am responsible for? Have I been explicit about what I need and from whom?
If I am a stakeholder, who needs my support or engagement? What does that look like to them? Am I sufficiently available?
So, there it is: Responsibility - Accountability - Trust - Support. Think of a project you are currently working on. Is the outcome clear? How clearly defined are yours and others’ roles? How easy is it for you to place the individuals involved in this framework? How explicit are those agreements? How much is assumed? How aligned are those assumptions?
I have found that using this framework improves team alignment, effectiveness and performance. This framework provides the context and impetus for some of those often more uncomfortable conversations about trust and support. Things that are often unsaid and assumed are now explicitly on the table. I’m seeing the positive impact of this on individual self-esteem, team psychological safety and team performance. So now when someone says, “You’ve got this”, everyone feels more confident they really have.