The Responsibility Virus: it’s catching; before you take charge of a troublesome situation, think about letting someone else handle it

The Responsibility Virus: it’s catching; before you take charge of a troublesome situation, think about letting someone else handle it – Cover Story

Roger L. Martin

The Trap

How many times has a subordinate walked into your office and announced something like this:

“Boss, we’ve just discovered a huge hole in our network security. We are more vulnerable to hacking than we ever believed. This will be an expensive problem!” — CHIEF INFORMATION OFFICER

“Our biggest customer just called and they are really rattling our chain. They claim they may pull the business, and we think they mean it this time!” — WORLDWIDE SALES

“The Environmental Protection Agency is threatening to close down our Topeka plant for emissions problems. They seem serious, and as you know, it is our baseload plant for the Midwest.”

As a leaderly CEO faced with a significant problem, your first reaction, a reflexive one, is to jump right in. You calm your subordinate, make suggestions, give orders, get things under control — true leadership at work.


Little do you realize that this was a trap — and you fell headfirst into it, without a moment’s thought. In doing so, you spread nothing less than a virus: The Responsibility Virus. Your actions were profoundly over-responsible.

In each of these cases, the subordinate came forward with the least responsible thing they could do, short of nothing. They informed you that your firm — in their area of responsibility — faced a worrisome situation. However, they failed to offer up any possible approaches to the problem.

In this respect, they were under-responsible. They could have, and should have, done much more. But you also had a chance to help them be less under-responsible. You could have said, “Why don’t you go away, think about it, and come back with some ideas?” But no. Instead, you “helped” in a way that was actually counterproductive for both of you. By jumping in and taking on a problem of corporate consequence, but directly in another person’s area of responsibility, you added a task to your already-difficult job of CEO.

In response to your display of over-responsibility, the subordinate is encouraged to follow up their initial show of under-responsibility with yet a little more under-responsibility. Your response may be a relief to them at first — “Boss helps with dangerous and scary problem.” But it is profoundly bad for them because it undermines your view of them. They suddenly land in the “part of the problem, not part of the solution” column in your organizational ledger.

With each tiny step of taking on responsibility and causing your subordinate to cede responsibility, you unwittingly perpetuate the Responsibility Virus. Eventually, it will be deadly, bringing on failure for both parties — and for your firm. There will be a straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back. And when that happens, your subordinate will feel betrayed. They never imagined that the person in whom they placed so much confidence could actually fail. And with your failure may well come a new boss and a new ream with a dim view of what the old team failed to do to avert the failure in the first place.

What causes this dynamic that is dearly no fun for anyone?

The Roots of the Responsibility Virus

The Responsibility Virus takes its life from the fear of failure. Failure offends values that, whether we understand them or not, govern how we approach the world. Researchers know that deep inside we desperately want to:

* Win, not lose

* Maintain control

* Avoid embarrassment

* Stay rational.

Sadly, the prospect of failure violates all of the above values: failure equals losing; after failure, someone else rakes control; failure is profoundly embarrassing; and it is well-nigh impossible to maintain rationality while all this is going on. The prospect of all of the above triggers the deeply-ingrained response to fear: the fight-or-flight mechanism. Fight equates to seizing responsibility to make sure that failure doesn’t happen. Flight equates to abdicating responsibility to make sure that failure doesn’t happen to you specifically.

Eventually, the system crashes and burns. The over-responsible boss keeps soaking up responsibility from subordinates that he or she keeps nudging into greater under-responsibility. Not surprisingly, by that point the over-responsible leader is likely to claim that there was nothing he or she could have done about it. The subordinates were short on the necessary skills and weren’t willing to step up to the plate.

Inoculating Against the Responsibility Virus

A number of tools can be used to inoculate against the Responsibility Virus. I describe a whole array in detail in my book, The Responsibility Virus: Stop Taking Charge or Taking Orders (Basic Books, October 2002). But I focus here on one key tool, The Responsibility Ladder.

The Responsibility Ladder provides boss and subordinate with a language for talking about division of responsibility in more sophisticated ways than, “You’re in charge and I’m not,” or “I’m in charge and you’re not.” Each rung of the ladder represents a relatively modest step, not a huge leap.

With the Responsibility Ladder firmly in mind, the CEO can respond: “It feels like you are dropping this problem in my lap. Can we try going a bit higher up the ladder? If I work on a solution to this problem, will you watch and learn so that next time you can work it out on your own? Or, if I help with the initial structuring of the problem, can you take it from there?”

Depending on the complexity of the problem, the boss can encourage the subordinate to take on responsibility ever further up the Responsibility Ladder. The benefit to the boss is that it doesn’t result in him or her taking on excessively high responsibility. The subordinate benefits by tackling the problem in a fashion consistent with their capabilities, thereby building their skills and confidence. And the boss builds up confidence in the subordinate, rather than undermining it.

The key to suppressing the Responsibility Virus is to inoculate yourself against that first reflexive step — the step into either over- or under-responsibility. Recognition of the dangers of the Virus, combined with a tool like the Responsibility Ladder, will help you match capability to responsibility assumed. This, in turn, will build confidence and capacity, rather than initiate the downward slide toward failure.


1 Consider options and make decision,

informing other party subsequently

2 Provide options to other party

along with own recommendation

on choice

3 Generate options for other and

ask other party to make choice

4 Describe a problem to other party

and ask for specific help in

instructing it

5 Ask other party to solve problem,

but make it clear you will watch

and learn for next time

6 Drop problem on other party’s desk

and indicate helplessness

When Roger L. Martin decided to retire from consulting and move into academics, he had his choice among top business schools. He ended up choosing The Rotman School at the University of Toronto, of which he is now dean. Why? “Nationalism,” he says. “I grew up in Ontario and wanted to give back to the community.” Currently Martin has two goals: to bring The Rotman School into the top 10 business schools worldwide, and to deliver his interactive experience connecting organizational strategy and leadership. Martin can be reached at

COPYRIGHT 2002 Chief Executive Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group