How to activate self-responsibility and create more meaningful work

tomatoes

A meaningful life is a responsible life and we need to be able to stay in charge of what makes life meaningful for us, especially at work. 

Viktor Frankl: “In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only respond by being responsible”. 

During the past 2 years I’ve interviewed hundreds of organisations who were either activating social and environmental purpose or creating a meaningful working culture inside their organisations. I met a very few where they’ve been able to do both.

There are a number of cornerstones to these organisations; specific actions they have taken which have resulted in a cohesive culture which is purposeful and where stakeholders have deeply meaningful engagement in their personal contribution to the greater organisational purpose. These cornerstones are:-

  • Activating Self-Responsibility
  • Activating Structure & Shape
  • Activating Collaboration, Co-Creativity, Community
  • Activating Creativity, Imagination, Curiosity
  • Activating Sensing, Seeing, Presencing

In this piece we’re going to look at self-responsibility.

Why Activating Self Responsibility?

One of the important quadrants of meaning to us humans that is being lost in the modern workplace, is a sense of autonomy. Part of our natural desire to develop our full potential lies in wanting to be able to influence outcomes around us, wanting to participate actively in the development of solutions, and wanting to be recognised for the contributions we make. Often these needs are unmet inside highly structured businesses where strategies are formulated within senior leadership teams and execution is simply handed down in a pre-planned format. There’s little buy-in or engagement in a top-down process. You exist to execute someone else’s ideas and plans.

There can be comfort in being told what to do. It saves you having to burn the brain cells to work it out for yourself! If it wasn’t your strategy, then even if you execute as well as you can and the strategy fails, it’s not your responsibility! You can hand that responsibility neatly back to the powers that be, carry on with your day, keep taking the salary and find the satisfaction of autonomous job-well-done in some other area of your life – perhaps a hobby.

What happens to us when we abdicate responsibility?

People may not necessarily like the notion of being responsible, or of being held to account. It may even be a frightening concept if you’ve been sheltered inside a command and control culture. But evidence suggests that without responsibility there’s not only no engagement; no responsibility for the outcome, no vested interest, a drop in performance levels and productivity, but we’re also less happy. Without making this an academic essay in responsibility, let’s take a quick tour around the subject.

Responsibility is something we can feel either morally or conventionally. Moral responsibility feelings depend on a person’s self-ascribed responsibility (i.e. a deliberate responsibility judgement) and guilt feelings. Conventional responsibility feelings depend on the social expectations a person is aware of and his or her readiness to fulfill these expectations.

Having responsibility is the duty or obligation to act. Taking responsibility is acknowledging and accepting the choices you have made, the actions you have taken, and the results they have led to. True autonomy leads to both having responsibility and taking responsibility. Taking responsibility is fulfilling your role in life. Responsibility is an essential element of integrity; it is the congruence of what you think, what you say, and what you do. Responsibility is essential for reciprocity, trust, and for maintaining symmetric relationships.

Consider that feeling when you’ve taken responsibility for doing something a little bit scary in your life. It might have been selling your house and moving to another country. It might have been applying for and taking on a role that you weren’t yet quite qualified for but you’ve been given a chance. If might be as simple as a bungee jump when the highest height you’ve jumped off in your life is the kitchen step ladder. And it’s gone well. Against whatever odds, you succeed because you’ve taken the chance, you’ve applied yourself and you’ve done it! The feeling of euphoria and satisfaction is derived from complex response set but essentially boils down to having taken personal responsibility for something and achieved an outcome. We need this as human beings.

How do you begin to activate self-responsible culture inside your business?

Activating self-responsibility in your organisation is complex. It demands a commitment to personal development and working on both emotional and spiritual intelligence. A culture of coaching, highly emotionally and conscious developed leadership is essential.

Freedom and autonomy needs to be tempered with processes that allow people to act with autonomy for themselves but also responsibility for the organisation! A pioneer in self-management in their industry, Julian Black of Matt Black Systems acknowledges that the change to a responsible culture involves a lot of coaching support from the organisation’s leaders. He explained: “Over a period of 7 years as we were changing the business, we (leadership team) invested deeply in our own skills as conscious coaches and facilitators. We were there to support our people through the transitions, challenges, fears and concerns, in a humane and conscious way. Today we come into the office only once every 6 or 7 weeks. We’re available to all our project leaders as support, but they don’t need our physical presence. We’re guides rather than leaders.”

There are many different routes to Rome, (and a lot more information in my forthcoming book Activation) but here is one practical place to start.

The first thing to catalogue and understand is all the things for which you cannot give away responsibility. All those actions where you have a governance, fiduciary, statutory, or regulatory obligation. Anything that is enshrined in the law of the country or industry in which you operate. This can be anything from IS standards, to charity commission compliance, health & safety, labelling, employee contracts – the list is actually vast. You need to understand precisely the chain of actions that needs to take place to ensure in your organisation that your employees cannot make any mistakes in these fields which would threaten the legal viability of your organisation, or lead to a drop in their confidence and surety.

In a smaller organisation, although it might sound an incredibly curmudgeonly process, you can do this mechanically. Here again, Matt Black Systems is a great example of the approach a small business can take. They studied and documented every single process that had to take place to ensure legal compliance so that employees had a process sheet to refer to for every single task that had to be done to ensure the company would operate to the highest standards. Matt Black Systems produces highly sophisticated components for large aircraft and helicopters, so there can be no failure to meet production standards since the end result could be fatal.

Once that is done, there’s often not a huge amount of space left in which you can allow employees autonomy, but it is very clear where you can. And these are the areas you open up. For Matt Black this included making single employees wholly responsible for a single contract from beginning to end; from sales to delivery. A project leader would have collective responsibility for how the company marketed itself to get onto tender lists, individual responsibility for producing and securing the tender, individual responsibility for every single action that needed to be taken up to delivery of contract.

The range of autonomy also included allowing employees to make their own decisions about working hours, holidays, salaries, purchasing, work environment, how client proposals are made, and how project teams are assembled, for example.

This does not necessarily always go smoothly at first! Empowering its employees to make their own decisions, this included responsibility for purchasing. Matt Black Systems designs and provides guidance systems for companies like Boeing and Airbus. In a burst of enthusiasm, one employee found it was possible to save the company a large amount of money by pre-ordering particular parts. One day a truck turned up at the office with over £1milion worth of such parts generating a saving of hundreds of thousands of pounds for the company. Great! The only downside was that the chances of using all those parts within 20 years was non-existent! Happily great supplier relationships allowed the return of any un-needed components!

Of course it’s not as simple as it sounds. It takes time and you need a gradual process in which you move from hierarchy to self-responsibility. You can choose to experiment in a single team, a single department or with a single brand.

Developing clear company, team and individual missions

Hand in hand with activating a self-responsible culture (often) goes a change in organisational structure and shape. Organisations like Morning Star, Semco, Zappos, are amongst the more well known global organisations successfully experimenting with new forms of organisation structure such as Holacracy, Teal and Self-Management. These are organisations models where the traditional functions of a manager (planning, coordinating, controling, staging and directing are all pushed out to all participants in the organisation instead of a select few with the title manager. Each member of the business is personally responsible for forming their own relationships, planning their own work, coordinating their actions with other members, acquiring requisite resources to accomplish their mission and taking corrective action with respect to other members when needed – just like Matt Black Systems.

Traditional hierarchy means that there are those within the organisation who have authority to direct the actions of others, and that there are others within the organisation who have only limited authority and autonomy. The self-management systems recognises that the people who often have the greatest insight into what is going on – employees at the coalface – are also in the best position to make decisions on their future and that of the organisation.

One of the most experienced organisations in self-management, Morning Star eventually created their own academy led by Doug Fitzpatrick who says “It all starts with principles. Self-management will not succeed when you don’t believe in two crucial principles. First, people should not use force against others; all interactions should be voluntary. And second, people should honour the commitments they make to others. Self-management without these principles is doomed to fail.”

In self-managed systems it is essential for all employees to have a goal to work towards. The company Mission and Vision must be crystal clear. In the case of Morning Star, the company does not necessarily have a stated social or environmental Purpose. Its overall mission statement is: To produce tomato products and services which consistently achieve the quality and service expectations of our customers in a cost effective, environmentally responsible manner.

Each single department within the business also has a mission statement, derived from Morning Star’s overall mission statement. So for example: To be a full service tomato ingredient supplier providing unequivocally superior services and supply-chain solution to specialty, and geographically unique customers.

Each individual has a clear personal mission statement, which is their individual commercial mission, for example: To obtain new sales opportunities and market information for the enterprise through cold calling and prospecting activities with the intent to sell. Each employee has a clear idea of how he or she contributes to the purpose of the organization. There’s no strict job description, but there’s a personal mission.

How do we shape self-management? Give us a CLOU!

Morning Star has an infrastructure in place to ensure everyone can easily find out who is responsible for what. On their intranet they include an essential document for their self-managing organization; the so-called Colleague Letter of Understanding (CLOU). It’s a short document that details an employees’ personal commercial mission and all the commitments they have made with employees who are affected by their work.

Here’s how the CLOU works in practice (quoted from Morning Star’ Self Management Institute)

  • At the start of every year each employee negotiates a CLOU and the corresponding commitments with the colleagues that are affected by his or her work. Most employees have about 10 CLOU colleagues with who they negotiate commitments.
  • Each CLOU specifies the commitments between two employees; deliverables, goals and performance metrics.
  • The CLOU is used throughout the rest of the year to hold each other accountable for the agreed upon commitments.
  • Every 2 months relevant business information is shared to track metrics of the CLOU. This turns the CLOU into a useful document and not into a bureaucratic exercise.

Whenever a conflict, disagreement or problem arises, employees have to solve it themselves. There’s no conflict-avoiding option of passing on your problems to your manager, you have to take responsibility and solve it yourself. Again Morning Star has a clear process for this in place.

  • When a conflict arises employees have to engage with each other to try to solve it. Skirting round the problem by complaining or discussing it with others is simply not accepted. Where the situation is fraught, a confidential ombudsman can be consulted.
  • If colleagues are unable to resolve conflict directly, they have the option to invite a third colleague into the discussion to give his/her opinion and advice, but not to make decisions or judgements. It’s still the responsibility of the two people in conflict to find common ground.
  • If this still fails, the individuals concerned can choose to appoint a panel consisting of different people with even wider perspectives to provide additional opinions and advice.
  • A final step if the conflict cannot be resolved is to appeal to Morning Star’s founder Chris Rufer, who makes decisions based on what is best for the company core mission and its best interest

Of course these are relatively well recognised examples of self-managed. I explore many less well known experiments in my forthcoming book, Activation, including in our own NHS.

If you would like to explore more about how Activating Self-Management or Self-Responsibility could help engage your organisation’s stakeholders, especially staff, please get in touch either via LI or jenny@jenandersson.com.

Leave a Reply