A Radically Different Take on Responsibility

A small shift in beliefs that can have a big impact

responsibility - overhead view of a beverage on a wooden table with trees reflected in the surface of the beverage

You might well know the old, cynical restaurant anecdote in which a customer flags down a server who’s passing his table and politely asks for another glass of water.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the server replies, “but you’re not in my section.”

This story is symptomatic of the shoulder-shrugging unwillingness to take ownership of anything that’s not directly our “duty”—at best, customers get bad service. At worst, companies and communities come apart.

Stories, as I’ve written any number of times in recent months, are beliefs made manifest. I’d like to tell you stuff like this only happens in poorly-run restaurants, but the reality is that it reflects a widely held belief. Most people, in most companies, and in most countries, have been led to believe that they are only responsible for themselves—accountable only for their own work assignments. As a result of which, customers get shunted from one office to the next. One department blames the next, one party points at the other. Stas’ Kazmierski, who taught us the visioning process back in 1993, used to tell the story of a company he worked for: “When you asked who was responsible, people would essentially cross their arms over their chests and point in either direction. We called it the company ‘salute.’ It was always someone else’s responsibility.”

This essay is about the opposite belief. The radical idea that we can all start by taking on total responsibility for everything of which we’re a part. While we are responsible for our own actions, our organizations would be healthier and happier places if we each were to skip the blame, defensiveness, and finger pointing and instead act with a sense of grounded, caring ownership. This small shift, I believe, is a powerful one that can have a meaningfully positive impact on mindsets, energy, and outcomes. Over time, it can change company cultures. It is a big part of ours. While it might seem like “more work,” it works the other way around—when it’s done well (by both the individual and the organization), people feel more empowered, more engaged, and, in the process, they gain a greater sense of purpose.

Over the course of the last few years, through ZingTrain, I’ve found myself working with some organizations that have, unintentionally, got me thinking this all through in greater depth. On the surface, they seem to be doing well. Many have already adapted some of our approaches, along with a host of other ideas that they’ve picked up from around the progressive business world. While all have had some good success, they are also, as they tell me, feeling frustrated: “We do so much for our staff, but they don’t seem to appreciate it. We’ve made all these changes to help them, but all they seem to want to do is show up, do their jobs, and go home. We’re trying to make this a great organization, but mostly people just want to punch in and out.”

I can certainly relate to the feeling of frustration. And yet, over the years, I’ve learned to push past it. Blaming staff for being unappreciative helps nothing. In Freedom and Accountability, Peter Block and Peter Koestenbaum write, “To blame others merely means making a decision to avoid the responsibility which ultimately and inescapably is one’s very own.”

I grew up, like many people, learning how to do all the blaming, finger pointing, and deflecting—our family dinners were all too often about engaging in endless arguments. I’ve tried, instead, to reground myself in the maxim Paul taught me 40 years ago: “When furious, get curious.” Which made me wonder… Why are companies who care about their staff, who are giving so much, finding that they get back so little? As I reflected on what wasn’t quite working, I started to realize that this belief about personal responsibility might be a big piece of the organizational puzzle. There’s something here in our culture that we don’t talk a whole lot about, but I realize is making a bigger difference than I’d given it credit for. It’s the sort of thing that, as Peter Block describes,

… [C]an be thought of as peripheral vision: you look at something, say a picture on the wall, and on the edges of your field of vision are images that are definitely there, but difficult to see definitively and clearly.

Here, we believe that we are each, fully, 100%, responsible for everything of which we’re a part.

This is not something we invented. I was reminded of that the other day while I was reading through a tome entitled, appropriately for the moment, Managing in Turbulent Times. Although the title might lead you to believe that it probably came out in the last couple of years, the book has nothing to do with Covid, attacks on the American Capitol, or the war in Ukraine. Managing in Turbulent Times was written 40 years ago by longtime leadership guru Peter Drucker.

Reading Drucker’s work helped me realize what was missing in some of these organizations where frustration with staff runs so high. Staff members are cared for, but they don’t care as deeply as someone who feels fully responsible for their organization, their department, their colleagues, or their work community. They’re asked only to do tasks, and that is what they do. The sense of belonging that goes with feeling fully responsible for the whole goes missing. The typical employee, Drucker explains, “is held responsible neither for his ownership power nor his knowledge power. And that, at bottom, explains his unease, his discontent, his psychological hollowness. … he has function but lacks status. He lacks responsibility.” As a result of which, Drucker writes:

The employee in most companies … is basically “underemployed.” His responsibility does not match his capacity, his authority, and his economic position. He is given money instead of the status that only genuine responsibility can confer—and this trade-off never works. 

The employee on all levels … needs to be given genuine responsibility for the affairs of the … community. … He must be held responsible for setting the goals for his own work and for managing himself … he must be held responsible for the constant improvement of the entire operation. … He must share responsibly in thinking through and setting the enterprise’s goals and objectives, and in making the enterprise’s decisions. 

When we accept responsibility for the whole of our work, what we create, Drucker says, “is citizenship.” While the word is well known, the approach is the inverse of what exists in most companies. Instead of citizens, the typical business quietly sees staff members as “subjects.” The leader—very much like a sovereign ruler, a king, or a queen—is the one who is, patriarchally, responsible for the health and well-being of all. The staff member is accountable only for their own work, but is neither empowered nor expected to take responsibility for the whole. This approach, Drucker demonstrates, will often lead to apathy. At its worst, the unwillingness to share responsibility creates alienation, anger, blame, bias, and burnout.

We did not consciously have Drucker’s directive in mind when we opened the Deli, but Paul and I both believed that we and everyone we hired would work in the way that Drucker describes: People who worked with us ought to have a meaningful say in what we were doing. And, at the same time, they would take total responsibility—as we felt ourselves—for what was going on. We weren’t trying to be radical. It just seemed like the right and obvious way to work. I don’t know that we talked much about it in those early beginnings, but taking responsibility was informally woven into what we do every day. It’s a way of being in the world of which I was reminded again this past weekend when Bill Russell passed away at the age of 88. For Russell, the long-time star of the Boston Celtics, and an active campaigner for civil rights throughout his life, the focus was always on the health and success of the group. As columnist Jim Rohn writes, “Russell was a player who wanted to take responsibility for the success or failure of his team.”

The mindset that Russell brought to the Celtics is what we want, and have always wanted, for our organization. In more turbulent and less turbulent times, it’s our hope and intent that all of us here take total responsibility for what’s going on. By embracing the whole, taking responsibility for the ecosystem and everything and everyone in it, we have a shot at making something magical happen.

I still remember when I realized that this unspoken hope could be hard-wired into the way we work. While I might well have read it first in Peter Drucker, I wasn’t savvy enough to see the power that a shift in responsibility could have until I came upon Gay Hendricks and Kate Ludeman’s 1997 book, The Corporate Mystic. They list “7 Radical Rules for Business Success.” Number 2 blew my mind:

Always take 100 percent responsibility for any activity you’re involved in. If you are in a leadership position, take 100 percent, not 200 percent. Require that each participant take 100 percent. Equality is only possible through meeting at the 100 percent level.

I must have read the statement something like ten times trying to let the concept sink in. It certainly didn’t mesh with what my 8th grade algebra teacher had taught me. And yet, it totally made sense in a belief-altering way. What had I believed up until that point? I’d probably just gone along, unconsciously with the “obvious norm” of what I’d been taught underlay all equity. We would share responsibility the equitable way: “50-50.” It felt fair and the math worked out. Unfortunately, though, that model just doesn’t actually work. It leads to the kind of blame and finger-pointing that Stas’ had taught me about. When I would inquire about something that had gone awry, it nearly always seemed to be the “50%” of the other person, almost never of the one I was asking. As Hendricks and Ludeman say:

The ordinary definition of responsibility: Whose fault is this?
The successful person’s definition: “How can I respond to this so everybody wins.”

Someone else who has challenged these old beliefs about responsibility for decades now is Peter Block. In his book Community, Block writes, “Choosing to be accountable for the whole, creating a context of hospitality and collective possibility, acting to bring the gifts of those on the margin into the center—these are some of the ways we begin to create a community of citizens.” Block, too, talks about citizenship:

A citizen is one who is willing to be accountable for and committed to the well-being of the whole. … a citizen is one who produces the future, someone who does not wait, beg, or dream for the future.

Instead of looking to leaders, bosses, teachers, politicians, or professors as either heroes or villains, we can take a deep breath and realize that we are all, like it or not, in this together. None of us have full control, but we can each work to make the kind of company, and/or community, that we want to be part of. If we do that work well, we create an ecosystem in which people will speak up, voice concerns caringly and constructively, participate in pushing for improvement, actively work to innovate, and come together when things go wrong. The sort of place where, rather than talking behind people’s backs, people calmly call meetings to have difficult conversations. Spots in which cynicism still starts up, but is relatively quickly nipped in the bud through effective self-management. The kind of place where, no matter who you ask for help, it’s always “their section.”

For those of you who write job descriptions, please know that none of this is meant to suggest that particular people aren’t also fully responsible for particular things. To be effective, we need to know who’s doing what. AND, at the same time, we are also, all, 100%, responsible for the whole. Responsibility for the whole can be written right into the job description. It’s a prerequisite for having a healthy, inclusive, equity-based, organization in which people participate fully. When we step up and take full responsibility for what we’re a part of, we grow stronger both individually and collectively. I’m inspired by what historian Keisha Brown writes about civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer’s “bold message—that each of us has the responsibility to work toward the just and equal society we envision.”

All these years later, the idea of taking 100% responsibility is embedded, ever imperfectly, in dozens of places here in the ZCoB. It’s an explicit expectation that’s written into our Training Compact. It’s a critical part of Open Book management and of why most all our meetings are open. It’s supported by our work with staff ownership and Staff Partners. And it’s at the heart of Secret #22, in which I share my belief that everyone in the organization is responsible for leadership. Taking 100% responsibility is also essential to the work we do to teach effective self-management, in our recipes for Customer Service, and on how to have caring conversations. And, it’s written clearly into our Statement of Beliefs:

We believe we’re each 100% responsible for the health of the ZCoB, of which we’re a part. 

All of this is a way to shift power away from the people at “the top” and put it where I believe it really belongs—in the cultural soil of the organization. Peter Block suggests that it invites us to invert old school, hierarchical models that most of us are used to. Instead, we enter a world where we begin to see that power is moving in very different ways from what we’re used to imagining. In this new model, where everyone takes full responsibility, we are at the same time also dependent on, and empowering of, each other. It’s an inspirationally inside-out world in which, as Block puts it:

– The audience creates the performance.
– The subordinate creates the boss.
– The citizen creates its leaders.
– The student creates the teacher and the learning.

Does everyone at Zingerman’s avail themselves of these empowering options? Of course not. All of us, me included, can slip back into cynicism, or start to watch passively from the sidelines as if we have no say. But there’s a big, big difference I’ve learned over the years between freely choosing not to participate and the more commonly encountered alternative where you aren’t allowed to.

How can we expect people to take responsibility for what they can’t control? Natural Law #13 reminds us that “Everything is out of control; all we have are varying degrees of influence.” This push to take 100% responsibility for our work, for our boss, for our peers, and for the performance of the whole organization, means that we need to accept this Natural Law and then move forward anyway. After all, as Peter Block says, “the willingness to accept responsibility and blame for all our acts is a central ingredient in an authentic existence.” Asking people who work in an organization to take 100% responsibility for the whole only works if people also have access to power. If people have no say in how things go, it’s hard to honestly ask them to take responsibility.

How big of a scale can this concept of everyone taking 100% percent responsibility work at? I don’t know. I do know that all social change starts with people accepting responsibility for the group. The other day I saw a clip of Ukrainian young people organizing a rave party during which they started to rebuild a bombed-out building while DJs spun discs and blasted tunes.

What are the practical implications of this work? My belief is that it quietly helps us to create what writer Bankole Thompson, a regular at the Roadhouse, told me last month: “You’ve created an alternative reality here!” If we do it well, we can build the kind of balanced relationship and responsibility that I wrote about in Secret #29. The first two of the twelve tenets of anarchism reflect this. (Tenet 1. All for One—Bringing Out the Best in Each and Every Individual in the Organization. Tenet 2. One for All—Individual Responsibility for the Organization’s Success.) When we do it together, good things come from it. As adrienne maree brown reminds us, “It is our right and responsibility to create a new world.”

Peter Drucker was not an anarchist, and he saw the need for hierarchy in ways that might not be fully aligned with what I would advocate. And yet, half a century ago, he still saw that everyone in an organization taking responsibility was essential to the health of the organization and to everyone in it as individuals:

The task of building and leading organizations in which every man sees himself as a “manager” and accepts for himself the full burden of what is basically managerial responsibility: responsibility for his own job and work group, for his contribution to the performance and results of the entire organization, and for the social tasks of the work community.

Can this concept of each of us taking total responsibility for the whole really work? I’ve come to believe that it’s really the only way. It’s a belief that I see—and feel—in great businesses, on basketball teams, in communities, and in countries. We cannot create collaborative, caring greatness, without it. As Grace Lee Boggs said, “You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.”

While there is no ZingTrain seminar or Guide to Good Leading book specifically on radically taking responsibility, the belief is quietly woven into all of them. Sign up for a seminar soon! Or, put all this into practice by ordering a complete set of all 34 pamphlets and have everyone on your team read one and share back with the group what they learn.

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