All the leaders I have been working with so far wanted their teams’ members to be more responsible. Not because they had irresponsible colleagues, but because this seemed to be the straightest path to performance. For many, responsibility has this aura of universal solution to all problems, a sort of magic ingredient which enhances performance in teams.
Usually, when you want something from the people you are leading, you think about what buttons you need to push in order to get what you wish for. To get more responsibility, I saw leaders of executive teams pushing the buttons of consequences (positive or negative), of moralising and mobilising speeches, team buildings, of modelling through their own example, and so on. All of these work, to some extent, in different teams and contexts.
But there is another element which decisively influences responsibility and has a pretty hard life in the majority of teams in which or which I’ve worked with. Responsibility is, before anything else, a function of clarity.
Recently I attended a workshop abroad where, to me, the most relevant thing the facilitator was doing with us was reformulating. She would ask us a question, not a simple one, and each of us would start answering, as profoundly and comprehensively as we could. When we finished, she would say: “Can I rephrase that?” And she would formulate in a short sentence what I had said in a minute or two. Then, she sometimes asked: “Is that right?”. Each time it was mind-blowing, because it wasn’t just right, it was much better. Because it was much clearer. And once it was clear, I could do something with the answer.
I attended many workshops with teams of managers, where, at the beginning, both the descriptions of the problems, but also of the solutions were done through an enumeration of phrases generous in form, but ambiguous in substance, so as to leave open doorways for post factum favourable interpretation, whichever direction things might have subsequently went. For the moment it seems to be a good solution, because it doesn’t create tensions in the team, but in fact, it’s a dead end, since nobody really understands things clearly enough to take responsibility for them.
Performance creates teams. Not something else. And performance means that we obtain something that we wanted and which is not easy at all to obtain. In Eastern cultures, to which we belong, effort is highly appreciated. This makes the formulation of performance to often contain mainly generous verbs: we are analysing, participating, improving, developing, growing, making this and that. Nobody can contradict these, everybody says yes, let’s do it, or, better, let it be done. And sometimes, some things are done, but not with the desired outcomes. Because effort leads to performance only if it is channeled towards it, and in a team, if all the efforts are channeled towards the same result.
In order to come to have the same understanding about performance in a team, we need spot-on questions and spot-on answers. Starting with “why” (why should we achieve this, and not something else, why now, why this way etc), moving on to how much we want to obtain, until when, how, with whom, for whom, and so on.
Just as responsibility depends on the clarity of formulations, the latter depend on the quality of questions. I have rarely seen frustrating and exhausting talks resolving faster than when confronted with clear, concise and relevant questions. I wonder how many leaders prepare their meetings with their team with this question in mind: which are the most important three questions we need to find clear answers to during this meeting?
No responsibility will grow from a soil where we plant ambiguity. Often, ambiguity, especially at the top of hierarchies, is a strategy. Because once things are named clearly, we almost have the obligation to act, to take responsibility. And this is risky. But this is exactly what members of a high-performing team do together: they clarify, decide and act. Then they evaluate, learn, and do the cycle all over again, but better.