What exactly is “responsibility”? While many people have varying views of its meaning and indeed, its context in the workplace, the dictionary provides six distinct definitions of the word:

  • The state of being the person who caused something to happen.
  • A duty or task that you are required or expected to do.
  • Something that you should do because it is morally right, legally required, etc.
  • The state of having the job or duty of dealing with and taking care of something or someone.
  • The quality of a person who can be trusted to do what is expected, required, etc.
  • On your own responsibility. To do something on your own responsibility is to do it without being told to do and to accept the blame if it has a bad result.

It’s no wonder the word responsibility can often crop up on us in the workplace, but it’s not always used in the most constructive context. Now that the word is defined let’s take a closer look at each of these, the problems they can cause and how we can use the word more effectively.


The state of being the person who caused something to happen.
This incarnation of responsibility is the one most often used and often with a negative connotation. The discussion about WHO is responsible can lead to a witch-hunt. Enlightened organisations diagnose the defect or error as procedural and fact-based; they seek to identify the weakness in the method rather than the person. In these organisations, the identification of problems is treated as an opportunity to become better, not to place blame.


A duty or task that you are required or expected to do.
It’s very healthy to have well defined business processes with clearly laid out responsibilities. These can be articulated effectively in job descriptions but are more commonly discussed as part of disciplinary processes. Best practice is to design very clear processes for work that needs to be completed. This can be depicted easily as swim-lane process maps to clearly show how people in the process should interact. Once mapped, the information can be translated into a responsibility matrix. LBS

Partners use the RACI diagram (example below) to formalise responsibilities.

Responsible – the person responsible for getting the work done.
Accountable – the accountable person, typically the manager of the person responsible.
Communicated – those who need to be communicated with regarding the work.
Informed – those who must simply be kept informed about the work being done.


Something you should do because it is morally right, legally required, etc.
The manifestation of responsibility has become very fashionable. We have the moral responsibility to treat people fairly. and not discriminate. We must ensure people are not bullied and that health and safety are not at risk. In recent years, the organisational roll in these responsibilities has been rolled into corporate social responsibility (CSR) plans. However, CSR plans are often seen as the organisation’s responsibility, deluding the onus on the individual. In reality, everyone is responsible for ensuring we are informed and do our utmost, where practicable, to safeguard fairness within the organisation.


The state of having the job or duty of dealing with and taking care of something or someone.
The easiest of the six definitions to describe. This form of responsibility features in job descriptions and is often a statutory obligation. Medical boards require organisations who manufacture and distribute medicines to have a contract qualified person and a contract responsible person, respectively. In the aeronautical industry, a designated engineering representative (DER) has ultimate responsibility for the airworthiness of any work carried out by his/her organisation. In hospitals, the clinical director is responsible for preserving the patient safety and the processes associated with this.


The quality of a person who can be trusted to do what is expected, required, etc.
There is plenty written about personal responsibility. Politicians, bankers, public servants, employees, teenagers and social welfare recipients often top the list of people criticised for not taking personal responsibility. While some criticism may be warranted, in most cases individuals do not have the influence or authority to take initiatives suggested. However, if everybody took responsibility for what is within their sphere of influence, progress could be made. Senior managers must influence the behaviours within an organisation. Front line workers can often influence the state of their vehicle, their office, their work area and common areas such as corridors and cafeterias. It is often within the senior ranks where there is a lack of personal responsibility in the workplace and this is usually developed because no work system is in place to enable others to take personal responsibility.


On your own responsibility – to something without being told to and to accept the blame if the result is bad.
When managers despair about the lack of initiative within their organisations, they are usually referring to the “taking responsibility” variety rather than the “creative”. Lack of initiative is usually because workers feel “damned if you do, dammed if you don’t”. Oftentimes, when taking initiative, you’re seen as overstepping your authority and in the times that you don’t show initiative, you’re missing out on opportunities – it’s a fine line. To make that line more solid, senior members in the organisation, those who design processes, must clearly delegate tasks and responsibility making it easier for employees to take initiative – on their own responsibilities.

Responsibility issues should be openly discussed and agreed whenever opportunities arise. From our experience, some of the areas to watch out for in your workplace, include:

Defining Organisational Values

Discussing organisational values, agreeing and actively promoting them, creates a very fertile environment for all members of the organisation to act responsibly

Defining Culture

Sometimes, the culture of an organisation needs to be reviewed, modified or simply confirmed. Use this opportunity to set expectations about the meaning of responsibility in your workplace.

Job Descriptions

The perfect place to define individual and collective responsibilities. Try doing this exercise in a universal fashion – for all processes; the resulting list of responsibilities is very empowering.


Opportunity to clarify responsibility arises each time a new project or programme is undertaken. The boundary of the project versus other projects, and the responsibilities of the project team versus operational teams, often cause responsibility confusion.

Communication of Expectations

There are constantly opportunities to communicate expectations. Such communication should only be for clarification of stated responsibilities and where new responsibilities arise, original documented responsibilities should be updated.

Defining Competencies

Many organisations define competencies for managers, roles and departments – these are a great place to clarify responsibilities for varying roles.

Conflicting Requirements

Organisations often have conflicting objectives: higher quality, better customer satisfaction, and lower cost, often conflict among colleagues. In these cases, senior management should interpret and coach the right way to interpret responsibilities, only leaving little room for interpretation.

Changing Requirements

When changes in market conditions, new customers, or new markets require different requirements, time should be taken to clarify how these change the work and varying responsibilities of those affected.

Tools that can help you clarify responsibility in the workplace, include:

  • Job Descriptions
  • Hiring the right people, for the right roles
  • Visual Management
  • Standards and Standard Work
  • KPIs and Metrics Reporting


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