Earlier this week, as I was driving to a meeting, I pulled over to help an elderly gentleman on a mobility scooter who was struggling to get past a fallen tree that was blocking the pavement. With the assistance of some friendly passing builders, we managed to lift his scooter past the obstruction and get him safely on his way.

Illustration of a woman with her hand in the air

Before continuing my journey, I quickly phoned the local council to alert them to what had happened and to suggest that given the danger now posed to pedestrians (let alone those in wheelchairs), who were having to step out into the road on a blind bend, they might want to get the debris cleared as soon as possible.

Two days later, an email popped into my inbox. Thank you for getting in touch, it said, but we are not responsible for trees on that road so can’t help – we suggest you report it to the highways authority instead.

A classic case of passing the buck …. and one that got me thinking about what influences people to take responsibility at work – or not – and the corresponding impact our ‘nothing to do with me’ attitude has on customer service, corporate reputation and productivity.

Now it may well be the case that the local council wasn’t responsible for the tree, but how hard would it have been for someone to pick up the phone to the right people, and set the wheels in motion to sort the problem out?

What’s getting in the way?

A number of issues typically get in the way when people fail to step up and take responsibility at work. Sometimes, it’s because they simply don’t know what to do. Often, it’s because they are frightened of being penalised for flouting some (usually unnecessary) rule. Or, it’s because they are so demotivated and disinterested in their work, that they simply can’t be bothered put themselves out.

Clearly, line managers have a big influence over levels of engagement in their teams, and how willing, or otherwise, people are to go the extra mile when needed. But HR also has a role to play, in supporting managers with developing leadership styles that empower rather than stifle people, and in creating cultures where people are motivated to take ownership, rather than simply doing the minimum that’s needed to get by.

Equipping managers with the skills to delegate well:

It’s surprising just how many managers don’t understand how to delegate properly. They dump tasks on people who haven’t been trained to do them (and then blame them when it all goes wrong). They delegate the work – but not the authority that’s needed to get the job done. Or they don’t delegate at all – because it takes too long and they ‘might as well do it themselves’. If managers learn to delegate well, it will have a knock-on effect on skill and confidence levels within their teams. People will learn how to tackle problems, deal with difficult situations and keep projects moving – and will be much more energised and enthusiastic about their work as a result. Provide training and make delegation part of your key management competencies, so that it’s perceived as a core part of their job.

Empower employees to make the right decisions:

Command and control is still very much alive in UK plc, despite all the talk about flatter, less hierarchical structures and more fluid ways of working. But if managers are constantly looking over people’s shoulders, dictating their every move, employees will never have the courage to stick their neck out and do the right thing (rather than the prescribed thing) for a customer or take the initiative to find ways to get around an issue that is blocking progress on an important piece of work. HR can support managers in developing the confidence to give people their heads and let them choose how to go about their jobs, letting them play to their strengths and coaching them through how best to deal with issues rather than always providing the answer. Initiating a program of regular team meetings or one-to-one check-ins can provide a forum for employees and line managers to develop confidence in each other – and a shared understanding of what doing the right thing really means.

Reviewing the rules:

Organisations can find themselves tied up in policies and processes – many of which are necessary, but some of which are almost certainly not. HR can help improve agility, productivity, motivation and engagement, by taking a step back and reviewing the rule book. Are overly-complicated policies getting in the way of managers taking a flexible approach to the way they organise work and lead their people? Are unnecessary rules wasting time, causing frustration and paralysing people from taking action when they need to? Do bonus plans or career paths reward the ‘wrong’ kind of behaviour? Bind people up in too many rules and regulations, and many will simply give up and do what they are told to do, rather than what they actually need to do.

In case anyone is wondering ……. the fallen tree is still there.

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.