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The responsibility ladder

By using the responsibility ladder, you can make leadership easier while developing your team members. It is a way of delegating responsibility.

A tool to correctly assess and delegate levels of responsibility is the responsibility ladder. How to make your leadership job easier while developing your team members? Are you ready? Let's go!


Liability virus

First, a quick summary of the liability virus: often managers take the burden of responsibility off their employees' shoulders out of a sense of heroism. However, this leads to a vicious circle in which the more they take responsibility, the more employees retreat, losing their enthusiasm to overcome problems on their own. Managers who are too responsible and do not delegate responsibility to their team lose the trust of employees (who do not feel that the manager trusts them), who in turn become more withdrawn from decisions and committed work. And after a while, this kind of work also leads to burnout in the manager.


Does it sound familiar?

Well, one of the main causes of this "virus" is the lack of development and implementation of a delegation strategy that would delegate some of the manager's responsibilities to employees. One of the best ways to solve this problem is to take a close look at the way responsibilities are assigned and the levels of participation in decision-making, including each area/team.  

You need to find new ways of delegating responsibility, taking into account the capabilities of the organisation and its people. Not only will this help your staff to make better decisions and take more responsibility in doing so, but it will also build internal commitment and increase a sense of cooperation and mutual support. 

Roger Martin has described in his book a useful ladder analogy for correctly assessing and delegating levels of responsibility. The image below illustrates this: the different levels of decision-making responsibility that employees can assume, from the lowest (bottom) level of responsibility to the highest (top) level of responsibility:


How does the responsibility ladder actually work? 

When employees are new to a job, a task or a process, they naturally defer to their manager to make the necessary decisions. They lack the experience and knowledge to make the best possible decision.  

This is normal and right. 

But as they gain experience with the job, process or task, employees also gain confidence and knowledge that allow them to become more involved in the thinking behind the decision making. Your job as their leader is to move them up the ladder of responsibility and increase their decision-making capacity and skills.

So, if a new employee is ready to move from rung 6 to rung 5 of the ladder, this means that he or she must become an observer of the manager's decision-making process in order to learn the thinking and process behind the decision making. With increasing experience comes greater knowledge and therefore greater responsibility to play an increasingly active role in the decision-making process. 

The employee can then soon move on to Step 4, where, after understanding and describing the problem, he or she can get help from the manager to solve it. After some practice at this level, they will be ready to present the manager with a discussion of the decision options from which they can choose together (Step 3). 

Finally, they will not only be able to present the options, but also to choose the best one according to their own assessment and present it to the leader. Then there is only the final stage, where employees are ready to make their own decisions (Stage 1).


Which level of the responsibility ladder is the right place for my team members?  


Consider the situation where there is no "right" place on the ladder. It is entirely context-dependent and depends on the comfort zone and abilities of each individual as to which level they will eventually be placed. A new employee may not be at all familiar with the processes and culture of the organisation, but may have the mindset and skills, due to previous experience, to place him/her fairly high on the ladder of responsibility for a particular task or process. Conversely, a very experienced and responsible employee may fall several rungs down the ladder if they are given a brand new task or system that they do not have much knowledge or professional background in.

If your employee is stuck on a step for a long time, it's a sign that something needs to change. Could it be your responsibility virus behind the stuckness, i.e. are you taking on too much responsibility for your employee? Or is she too insecure and afraid to take on more responsibility, so she needs more support and encouragement from you? Even if he or she is at the top rung of the ladder: ready for a promotion, but you might be holding him or her back? Or is he not getting the chance to step out of his comfort zone and learn new skills? 

It's a dynamic process and you need to constantly monitor the situation of your team.


Task: setting up the responsibility ladder 

Ready to make your job easier while giving your team the opportunity to grow? Take a few minutes, sit down in a quiet place and answer these questions honestly. 

  • Where are your team members on the ladder of responsibility in the decision-making situations? 
  • Where are you (relative to your own leader)? 
  • What steps can you take to help people move up the ladder? 
  • What responsibility conversations do you need to organise with your team members? When and where will these take place? What will be your next step? 

Talk it through with your team. We hope the article has given you valuable ideas and suggestions on how to make your own job easier while your team is also improving. You can read the article in English at this link. Alternatively, you can read about a similar tool in our previous article.


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