Responsibility and compliance: Two sides, different coins | Contributor

By Mike Cook
Courtesy to The Bellingham Business Journal 

For many years I have begun all my management development initiatives with the admonition to anyone in the room that their success as a manager would have an upper limit.

That limit would be determined by the cumulative emotional intelligence of whatever group of employees they were charged with leading.

But I am not writing about emotional intelligence today. I want to talk about responsibility.

Responsibility is much harder to practice than it is to talk about, especially without setting up the right conditions. This is where emotional intelligence comes in.

If you cannot handle a grown up relationship with your employees, or they with you, you’ve got very big problems.

When attempting to establish working relationships grounded in responsibility, it is best to step back and determine whether the group involved in the conversation has a shared understanding of the concept.

Historically, employers have assumed compliance from employees and called it responsibility. Moreover, and as an extension of the desirability of compliance, we have done a pretty good job of tying the concept directly to character, and have thereby locked it into the good/bad context that surrounds many of the ideas that have been turned into commodities.

What is needed now, when many workplace problems are complex and do not yield to simple compliant behavior, is a new way for employers to relate to employees and a new way for employers to determine whether the people they employ are sufficiently grown up to provide the performance they require.

If, from the employee’s perspective, we consider responsibility as more a matter of individual initiative—they are or are not responsible as a matter of choice, rather than history or upbringing—we get into the arena of gifts, and gifts cannot be assumed.

If, from the employer’s perspective, we consider responsibility to be more of an offer than a right, we get into the arena of tools, and tools have their uses in proper circumstances.

Try this on: You are responsible if you say so and not if you don’t.

Now, of course, I am speaking in terms of the workplace. Society at large has this “in the eyes of the law” notion, where responsibility is assigned.

In the workplace, this concept has been interpreted as “in the eyes of the employer,” and most often looked upon as the right of employers to assign responsibility. From the employer’s perspective, employees are responsible if the employer says so.

OK, but is there any power in that?

Consider this: If the game is rigged so the employer always wins—the employer has the say so and employees get only to respond “okey dokey” to all demands—then where is there any responsibility, if by responsibility we mean a willingness to respond when the going gets tough, or even simply when the boss is not around?

Seems to me that there is mainly duty in this condition, and therein lies the problem.

Where is the room for initiative, passion or creativity in that sort of relationship? Can all parties involved be counted on to stand for what was agreed to when the poop hits the cowcatcher?

This is a very different relationship from the one that many still assume, whether employer or employee.

A manager somewhat long in the tooth recently approached me a question. He asked, “Can you tell me what to do about these younger employees, they don’t always do what I tell them to?”

I asked in response, “Do they say they are going to do what you told them to?”

He was at first silent, then spoke, “Do they need to? I always just did whatever my boss asked me to do.”

So I went on, “This is not your father’s workforce or workplace any longer. The newer generation of workers is no less energetic than you were, they just have different conditions under which they are willing to work. You need to get to know them at a more intimate level.”

“They do not want their responsibility to be assumed, they want to be asked, they want to be given a choice, at least much of the time. If you don’t do that for them, I bet you will continue to be disappointed in the ‘sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t’ performance.”

This was a shocking shift in reality for this manager, but he made the change and later reported that his employees had gotten a lot better once he began letting them know what he wanted them to do, and then confirming their willingness to do it.

In my view what happened was he brought his management style up to speed with the people he had reporting to him.

Mike Cook is a management developer who lives in Anacortes, Wash. He publishes a weekly blog at

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