Are You Responsible To or For?

In my consulting work, I work with a variety of leaders in organizations. Some have title-based responsibilities, such as VP, Director, Manager. Some have position-based responsibilities, such as Product Owner, project manager, Scrum Master.

Their responsibilities weigh on them. And, they speak about these responsibilities differently.

Sometimes, they discuss being responsible for other people’s work. I see this a lot in management-types. I also see this in Scrum Masters who actually work as command-and-control project managers. They use all the Scrum ceremonies and none of the agile principles.

When I work with these people, they often discuss their challenges:

  • Need to offer status to others
  • Drive to completion
  • Wonder why people aren’t as “productive” as they could be.

The people who use the for language work in a close-to-blaming way. (Blaming is a common incongruent stance. Please see Can You “Just” Anything? for more details.)

I also work with people who discuss being responsible to other people. When they talk about these to responsibilities, they use phrases like these:

  • Identify challenges
  • Clear impediments
  • See delays
  • Encourage collaboration
  • Support people through their careers

I could continue, but that might be enough. Here’s what’s common about all these phrases: they start with an action verb. The leaders focus on work outcomes, not work activities.

Can these people be incongruent? Of course. None of us is perfect, including me. However, when we ask questions that start with the context and consider how we support people, we’re often in a better place to effect change.

Especially at work, when I hear about responsibilities for, I too often see demands that other people deliver something. When I hear about responsibilities to, I see more awareness of the context.

You might use these prepositions interchangeably. I only know about English, so your language might offer different options. I would like you to consider when you say responsibility for and responsibility to, and what the difference might mean for you.

I empathize with everyone’s responsibilities. I have many responsibilities, too. And, I try to be more intentional about how I think about them. And especially, who I serve with those responsibilities.

That’s the question for this newsletter: Are you responsible to or for?

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