Be Responsible To, Not For Others

Leaders are often taught that “the buck stops here”.  For example, if a team member makes a mistake that costs the company time or dollars, it is the leader who ultimately assumes responsibility for the error and for taking the necessary steps to fix it.

This level of responsibility is appropriate.  You lead the team, if the team makes a mistake it is up to you to support them in rectifying it.

However, when it comes to difficult conversations, I often see leaders confusing their responsibility with the other person’s responsibility.  It's important to remember this:

We are responsible to others and not for them.

Read that sentence again. When you really get this, your influence will significantly change and your frustration level will decrease.

You will let go of the things you cannot change or control.  Instead, you will begin to take responsibility for the things you can change and control.  And, you will start to see opportunities for you to understand, at a much deeper level, where others are coming from.  You will then apply new approaches to influence them to make their own best decisions.

Quite frankly, life just becomes easier.  Conversations become easier.  Because you are no longer tied to the idea of them "getting it".

You are more concerned about the process of  understanding them and using what you learn as an opportunity to help them understand where you are coming from.

Let me demonstrate this through an example.  Several years ago I was responsible for overseeing a new graduate rotation program. One emerging leader, in the year-long program, rotated every 3 months through various positions in the company. The goal at the end of the year was to assign her to a position based on her interests and position availability.

When it came time to offer her a position, she was displeased with the compensation.  Aiming to understand why she felt this way, I uncovered her reasoning. You see, she was concerned that her peers in oil and gas were getting ahead in their careers faster then she was.  They were making more than what this position in offered.

The reality was that, yes, this position paid less then her peers in oil and gas.  And, it was competitive to the industry she was in.  And, she had ample opportunity to advance her career.  And, more likely faster than her peers would.

As the leader of this program, I was responsible to understand her concerns and to understand her position. I was also responsible to explain - in the best way I could - how our compensation system worked, how her salary was decided, and what it meant to advance her career in the company.  Once I did this, I was not responsible for how she chose to react to the information or for her decision to stay or leave.  She and she alone was responsible for that.

In the end, after encouraging her to take time to think about our discussion, she did decide to stay with the organization and take the position.  If she had chosen to leave, I was perfectly okay with that.  Yes the program was designed to recruit AND retain new graduates, but I did not want a new employee in the company who was dissatisfied and disengaged.  You see, I controlled what I could and left the rest up to her – regardless of the outcome.

All too often we avoid having difficult conversations because we know we cannot control the outcome nor the other person's reaction. In fact, we want so badly to convince the other person that the outcome we want is what's best for them.  When we cannot see a way to do that without risking the relationship, we avoid the conversation altogether.

As a leader, you need to be willing to take responsibility for what you and you alone can do or say, and allow the cookies to crumble where they may.   Avoiding or delaying these discussions does not make for a better outcome; it actually can cause more toxic situations to ensue.


Lisa Holden Rovers, MSc, CPHR, PCC, is the Founder of Workplace Matters. Since 2005, she has been coaching small and mid-sized business leaders to grow their influence and inspire their teams to thrive. With her data-driven coaching and training approach, Lisa helps clients improve collaboration, productivity, and well-being. As a certified leadership and team coach, Lisa utilizes solutions like Everything DiSC® and The Five Behaviors® to help clients leverage their strengths and build high-performing teams.

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