November 6, 2002 - The Globe and Mail: The Peace Corps and the Responsibility Virus

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The Peace Corps and the Responsibility Virus

John Kennedy challenged Americans with his phrase, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

Read and comment on this story from The Globe and Mail that discusses some of the reasons why the Peace Corps remains strong and vibrant after 40 years because rather than a leader assuming "heroic" responsibility for making critical choices, there has always been a sharing of responsibility between leaders and followers in the Peace Corps.

Read the story and learn about practical tools that can be applied to encourage collaboration and overcome the responsibility virus at:

Collaboration is potent*

* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.

Collaboration is potent


Wednesday, November 6, 2002 Page C2

The Responsibility Virus

By Roger Martin

Basic Books, 286 pages, $41.50

John Kennedy challenged Americans with his phrase, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." The Peace Corps, which emerged out of that thinking, remains vibrant today. By contrast, Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" was quickly shattered.

In The Responsibility Virus,Joseph L. Rotman School of Management dean Roger Martin suggests that is because Mr. Gingrich's implicit message on behalf of the Republican Party was: "Vote for us, then sit back and watch us perform. We'll take care of it for you." And at the heart of that promise was a leader assuming "heroic" responsibility for making critical choices, rather than a sharing of responsibility between leaders and followers.

Too often, Mr. Martin suggests, leaders try to grab the lion's share of responsibility for some task. That only encourages passivity in followers, who feel left out. At the first sign of passivity, the leader grabs more responsibility, feeling irritated by subordinates who are shirking their duties. The cycle continues, with irritation escalating into anger, until the leader eventually takes on more responsibility than can be handled effectively.

As the leader approaches failure, he or she does an abrupt turnaround, flipping to an under-responsible stance in order to be insulated from what's ahead. That jolts followers into their own extreme reaction, flipping to overresponsibility, making sure that they are never again put in a position of being dependent on a leader -- often the successor to the damaged current leader -- who lets them down.

It's an endless loop, driven by fear of failure. And it if seems a touch abstract, Mr. Martin offers lots of examples from his consulting career that will make it starkly familiar, since it occurs daily in most workplaces.

Prompting it are four governing values that Harvard professor Chris Argyris delineated behind human behaviour:
"When we're operating from the governing values, failure looms so large as a threat that we try to avoid it at almost any cost. When we can't avoid it, we try to cover it up or deny it," Mr. Martin says.

Under those governing values, collaboration is dangerous -- something to be avoided. "If I work in partnership with someone else, the other person may screw up, which would make me part of a losing effort. In a partnership, I am no longer in control. Worse, I may have to be part of all sorts of potentially embarrassing conversations I would love to avoid."

We therefore embrace one of two options: fight, in which we assume total responsibility for the situation; or flight, in which we assume almost no responsibility.

Mr. Martin offers four practical tools that can be applied in the workplace to encourage collaboration and overcome the responsibility virus.

The choice-structuring process, for example, is aimed at teams that don't get full participation because members are afraid of losing in a clash of ideas. The group must frame a choice with at least two options -- to avoid everybody meekly assenting to an option they don't really like. Any option that a member of the group feels is important must be included, so they aren't embarrassed and don't withdraw into an under-responsible, sulking stance.

For each option, the group must specify the conditions that must hold true for the option to be a good choice. Next, group members must determine which of the conditions they are least confident hold true, which allows skeptics free rein and helps the group to understand clearly the impediments to pursuing that option.

A test is designed to determine the validity of each option, with the most skeptical person taking the lead role since he or she will have the highest standard of proof. That person then oversees the testing and analysis of that option, to give the group full confidence in the results, with a final choice made when those results are known.

That choice is usually easy, because the criteria have been predetermined and the governing values are not threatened because of the process.

The Responsibility Virus is an incisive and important book. It's easy to read and will offer assistance to all of us who struggle with the responsibility virus at work, at home, or in volunteer-based associations.

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