Control vs. Responsibility

The idea for this article came to me while observing senior staff members in a large technology company.  These individuals had been working at the company for a long time, in some cases 15 to 20 years or more.  These people were recognized as individual contributors, but for some reason have either avoided management roles or had tried management without success.  What I observed is that these people had valuable knowledge about processes and technology, but were averse to taking on significant responsibility.  They have perfected their craft and, on the surface, they were contributing.  However, something didn’t feel right about their interaction with the team.

Upon closer examination, it became clear that these individuals were exerting a great deal of control over a team, but were not taking on the responsibility for the success of the team.   As a manager this was frustrating because they would give the illusion of taking responsibility but in fact they were just exerting control.   One senior staff member I worked with wanted to assign tasks to team members, but never wanted the responsibility to follow up on the assignments to see if they were understood or implemented correctly.

As I began to look for more occurrences of this phenomenon, it was clear that it existed at all levels of the organization, and was not limited to individual contributors.   Many managers also want a high level of control, but align their teams and projects so that personal responsibility is avoided.   Some managers are experts at the responsibility game.  They build an organization that looks more like a money laundering scheme than an organization chart, making it impossible to trace responsibility back to any individual.

These managers are able to pass responsibility to their direct reports like an NFL quarterback, while avoiding accountability should things go awry.  Remarkably, they still retained the ability to take credit when things go well.

Organizations that are burdened with individuals and departments that exert control without responsibility are often plagued with problems.  Soon it becomes clear that the secret to a healthy organization is the proper alignment of control AND responsibility.  In other words – empowerment!

Control can develop in managers with the best of intentions.  They do not want their reports to fail, so rather than empowering them (and having to suffer the consequences if they fail), managers setup control processes to keep them from failing.  Examples of this thinking are….

      If we add a few more reviews to the schedule John won’t miss his dates next time.

      If we put in strict architecture standards we won’t have to rework Jane’s code. 

      Let’s double the testing time for Robert’s projects to be sure there are no major bugs.

These are signal’s that the organization does not trust John, Jane, and Robert to do the right thing.  This mistrust may or may not be warranted.  Often employees take that appear to be incorrect but are in fact the proper tact given the information available to them.   In some cases, they may simply be in a job where they cannot succeed.  The answer to the latter is not more control; it is aligning the right people with the right jobs.


Before analyzing this further, let’s create a working definition of some terms.

Responsibility is defined as willingness to be held accountable for the outcome of a task, project, department mission, or other unit of work.

Control, in this context, refers to the ability to determine how a task is done.  Examples of this include who to hire, the project methodology used, the software algorithm, the type of font used in the document, the slide master used for the Power Point, etc.  Unfortunately, many control issues are really style issues.  Many styles will work – they are just different.  The problem that must be avoided is exerting control without a clear project, business, or customer objective.

Organizations are dysfunctional when they allow people:

  1. To exert control over tasks for which they are not responsible and
  2. To exert control over a situation when control is not required.
  3. Give people responsibility without the appropriate level of control

Accountability, or being accountable, means that you are willing to accept the rewards for succeeding or the punishment for failing.  Rewards and punishment are subjective terms that must be defined for each organization and job role.  Rewards can range from simple praise that acknowledges the success, all the way to bonuses and promotions.  Correspondingly, punishment can range from simply acknowledging the failure all the way to reduced merit increase and the ultimate, termination.

Empowerment means that the level of control, responsibility, and accountability are in balance.  In this state, an individual feels the appropriate level of commitment to the success of a project.

The Root of Control – Stress

Stress has been expressed as the formula:


This means that as responsibility increases, without a corresponding increase in control, stress will increase.  Similarly, if control increases without a corresponding increase in responsibility, stress will be reduced.  This definition may explain why control has become a coveted token while responsibility is passed on like a hot potato.

Some examples of stressful situations include working in a support role without proper tools or training.  You have the responsibility for serving a customer without sufficient control over how to properly service them.  Another example of stress is a product manager responsible for servicing a market without any control of product content.   Even worse, a technical staff member that is told by management how to perform a critical task, even though they know it will not work.  In this case, the CONTROL denominator actually goes negative in our STRESS equation

Stress is also cumulative across all tasks and projects.  Middle and upper managers that have involvement with multiple projects have incentive to reduce stress on each project since the cumulative stress can become overwhelming.  This further increases the desire for increased control and reduced responsibility.

Controllers and Victims

We can use the working term of “controller” for people that exert excessive control without responsibility.  Controllers can be quite passive in their actions and therefore much harder to spot than the infamous world leaders identified as dictators.  Despite their passive style, they can have a detrimental effect on an organization.

People that accept responsibility that should rightly be assigned to another without sufficient control are “victims”.   Neither controller nor victim behavior is healthy for an organization.  Victims typically have very low moral since, without control, their only recourse is to complain.  People complain when they feel powerless.  If they have power – they will use it instead of complaining.  Victims can also become controllers over time – “passing thru” their frustration to others in the form of control.

Victims are also born when individuals are given assignments that cannot succeed.  Sometimes the lack of power felt by a victim is the overwhelming scope of a task or they lack the skills necessary to complete the task successfully.   They are often unable or reluctant to recognize this, again resorting to complaints rather than action.

Warning Signs

There are some warning signs that signal excessive control.  Reduced morale and motivation, poor business performance, low margins on products and services, and other business problems could be signs of this phenomenon.

These are some places to look for excessive control that is reducing agility….

The senior individual contributor who constantly has an opinion on how things should be done but never takes on significant responsibility.

Centralized standards organizations that dictate how things should be done but don’t have direct responsibility for the delivery of product or service.

A project management or project quality office that describes how a project should be run or tested but is not accountable to the customer that is receiving the service or product.

Middle managers that do not have clear, measurable objectives or that are not incentivized to help their direct reports achieve their goals.

Product managers without incentives tied to sales and/or market share.

This should not be interpreted as all standards organizations are bad.  Rather, a balance has to be struck between those standards that add value to the customer or are just a form of internal control.  It is also useful to create internal customer-vendor relationships between the standards groups and the teams that are delivering value to external customers.

Shepherds and Sheep

An alternative to the Controller/Victim relationship is the Shepherd/Sheep relationship.  This is a situation where an individual (Sheep) is willing to give up control of their actions to another (Shepherd) in exchange for reduced responsibility.  The Shepherd is willing to take some level of responsibility in exchange for control.  The social contract is:

“(Sheep) I am willing to give up control of my actions to the Shepherd,  but in exchange, don’t hold me responsible or accountable for the outcome”

This relationship is not healthy for the organization since it removes a significant degree of responsibility from the individual.  Furthermore, the shepherd may give the sheep the illusion of reduced responsibility, but in practice they may end up taking the blame for an unsuccessful outcome.

The Empowerment Solution

Empowerment is defined as being given responsibility for a task, accountability for its outcome, and the control over how it is executed.  This sounds pretty simple and many management books cover this subject.  My personal feeling is that within this definition of empowerment, accountability is the hardest part to implement.  If managers are not comfortable holding people accountable, they never give them full control.

Many individual contributors are not comfortable with empowerment and accountability either, possibly because they have never been given control as well.  This is roughly akin to a country that has been under a dictatorship and is now given the right to free elections.  It is at best uncomfortable and at worst cause for a violent uprising.

There are several actions that an organization must pursue to avoid the Control vs. Responsibility conundrum.

First, align the organization structure with business goals, creating business units that have clear value and can be measured.  Transfer responsibility AND control to business units, allowing them to buy in to their objectives.  Be sure to hold the business units accountable.

Second, learn to spot controllers and victims at all levels of the organization.  One simple test to flush out a controller is to offer them responsibility with accountability.  Often they will avoid it.  The victim mentality must also be identified, since victims can become controllers out of frustration.  Employees must be trained on how to identify these trends and be responsible for not falling into either behavior.

The obvious goal is to instill employees with a sense of responsibility to themselves and to the organization.  This requires both the organization and the employee to have an accurate sense of their capabilities, balancing responsibility with aptitude.



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