Written by Andy Ferrett
Feb 04, 2016

Responsible teams

How to foster an environment where staff take responsibility

How not to be great

Recently we came across a company where a middle manager was struggling to get her staff to go the extra mile. They’d come in and do a good job, but only that and nothing more. 

No-one was responding to the fact that it was a busy season for them and as a team they could build a better company by rallying together and cracking through the work in a concerted effort. 

More than this, the senior team couldn’t understand why no one was coming in early or staying late to get through it. 

After a short time with the manager in question, it wasn’t difficult to see why. 

Here are some examples: 

  • The senior team had adopted the title “The Partners”. In their business sector this is common language, but even so, automatically it implies a separation between the senior team and the “workers”. 
  • “The Partners” always come in late (10am), but still expect the staff to arrive on time and do their full 8 hours. 
  • All social activity had been stopped a few years ago when the company hit bad times and had never been resumed, not even a Christmas party. 

Unfortunately, this is not a unique story.

How can we create companies that are truly great?

Companies that foster an environment where everyone from the bottom of the pile to the top, take responsibility not only for their job role, but for the whole organisation?

What are great companies?

Similar to the story above, there are many companies that are simply not aiming to be great, or at least if they are, they’re failing dramatically. 

Now let’s pause for a moment and define ‘great’. We’re not talking about ‘great’ in a financial context (turnover or profit etc), or even in a relation to corporate goals and targets. 

We mean building a company where staff actually want to work. A company where we take our social responsibility seriously. A company where we can provide a high standard of working and living for those we’re connected to. 

We believe that encouraging our staff to take responsibility is a huge key to building truly great companies.

Here's how:

1. Give staff something they believe in and are proud of

It’s pretty straightforward: give someone a task or project they believe in, and they will go the extra mile to ensure it happens.

They’ll strive for it to be on time and on budget. And more than this, they may even go yet another mile and make it the best thing you’ve ever seen, far more than you asked them to do. 

If this is true of a project or a task, then how much more is this the case with a whole company? 

If you inspire your staff to build something great, if you get them on board with the vision of the company (or even better get them involved in defining the vision and values of the company), they will go above and beyond what you ask of them. 

They’ll attempt to build something truly great. 

As Simon Sinek puts it in his excellent book Start With Why “People don't want to come to work to build a wall, they want to come to work to build a cathedral”.

Some practical things we’ve learnt on this subject:

  1. Get the whole company involved in defining why the company exists and its values
  2. Provide a working atmosphere staff can be proud to work in and show off. In our case, we’ve looked to create an office that is aesthetically pleasing, without being pretentious whilst proactively working to make it as productive a space as possible. (Perhaps we’ll blog about this soon).
  3. Provide them with the best tools for the job, for us these are; good quality MacBooks, Thunderbolt displays and whatever software needed to get the job done.
"People don't want to come to work to build a wall, they want to come to work to build a cathedral"

2. Hire the right people

Ultimately, what we’re aiming is for the whole team to behave like responsible adults. 

The first step to achieving this is hiring people with not only ability but the mentality to take responsibility. 

Don’t hire children who need constant supervision to get the work done. You need to have people you can trust. 

Netflix helpfully identified this they want to hire people who are:

  • Self motivated
  • Self aware
  • Self disciplined
  • Self improving
  • Acts like a leader
  • Doesn’t wait to be told what to do
  • Picks up the trash lying on the floor

3. Actively encourage it

Taking responsibility isn’t something that happens naturally, it needs to be actively fostered and encouraged. 

It doesn’t matter how much people believe in what you are doing, many of us will naturally forget or not make the connection between the companies vision & values and their own relationship to it. 

To help encourage this make sure you talk about it regularly in normal communications, whether this is to individuals or the team. 

If people need reminding of specific tasks then setup Slack reminders to the whole team, and watch as many of your team step up to take ownership. 

Finally, make sure you model it from the top down. There is no reason why the management team shouldn’t do the washing up, take out the rubbish or help with the DIY.

4. Don’t over-staff or over-administrate

As a company grows, it is easy to assume that you need people to run around after everyone doing the tasks no one wants to do. This might be an administrator, PA or office manager. 

Whilst there is definitely an argument for having less skilled staff doing the less skilled work, this should not be at the expense of everyone taking ownership. 

Don’t hire someone to do a task that your team can pickup between them unless you really have to. 

As soon as you hire someone to do that task, then two things happen: 

  1. It becomes someone else’s problem 
  2. It's likely that job will become inflated beyond what it originally required. 

Some practical examples:

  • Don’t buy a dishwasher! As soon as you do that no one will take responsibility for unloading it. Stay with people having to wash up their own items. You’ll find people will naturally help each other out and robust conversations can be had if people don’t pull their weight.
  • Don’t have over the top computer admin rights. As soon as you put roadblocks in the way of people getting on with their work you’ll demotivate them.
  • Don’t have excessive rules, treat people as the responsible adults that they should be.

5. Trust staff to do their work

Trust is a necessary element in this equation. If you don’t have trust from the top down, you won’t have people take responsibility from the bottom up.

Your team need to know that you trust them to get on with their work.

They need to feel like they can take responsibility to get on with something that isn’t within their job description but benefits the company more widely.

In practice this means we try to ensure our processes require limited administrative overhead and meetings, but we aim for a high amount of transparency.

We do daily(ish) standups, but have physical Kanban boards to show project progress.

We also have a system that gives all staff access to the burndown of time/budget of projects. Currently this is weekly but we’re working towards a realtime system.

At a glance they can see how much time is left on a project and they are able to make the necessary decisions to bring it in on time and money.

"if you don’t have trust from the top down, you won’t have people take responsibility from the bottom up"

6. Never assume they have done something wrong

Given that we look to employ “responsible adults”, it follow that we don’t look to employ people who would go out of their way to do something deliberately bad.

If that is the case and something goes wrong, it is much more likely to be a process issue than a person issue.

It doesn’t always come naturally but when problems arise we therefore look at the system or process that contributed and look to fix that rather than come down hard on an individual.

Ensure you have a culture where people are happy to constructively critique the way you do something to get better at how you do it.

7. Encourage others to support that responsibility

We’re a team, probably the best mobile team in the country!

That means more than just doing socials, hitting the pub after work or sharing Monday bacon sandwiches together. 

We actually support and encourage each other.

We believe we do our best work together and part of that is an encouragement to each other to take responsibility, it won’t just be given to you.

For us this looks like sharing knowledge in code reviews, pair programming, regular peer coaching sessions and team workshops as well as informally at our Monday staff meetings and lunchtimes around the kitchen table.