3 Easy Ways to Accept Individual Responsibility

Leader/Coach/Apprentice

In “Teamwork is an Individual Skill” Christopher Avery suggests that collective leverage and power does not come from distributing and delegating accountabilities, but from collectively demonstrating responsibility for the entire result, with each member doing their best to make their contribution useful to the other members. 

I have often been puzzled by what this really means in a flat, self-organized team.  The paradox of Diffusion of Responsibility states that if everyone is responsible for something, then no one is responsible for it.  

I have developed a three-part mental thought exercise that team members can use to avoid the Diffusion of Responsibility paradox.  The exercise is in three parts, and, like a breathing exercise, should be applied in times of stress, and practiced until it is habitual.  Ask each member of the team to imagine that they are the team’s leader, coach, and apprentice.

  1. The Team Leader.  Imagine that you have been appointed the leader of the team.  How do you feel?  Do you have a sense of pride in the team’s accomplishments?  Do you feel empowered to ask other team members to do activities that will further the team’s mission?  Are you acutely aware of needing to understand what the mission is, and exactly to what you are being held accountable?  Do you feel that you would do anything you can to ensure the team is successful?  Most people would say yes to the above.  This is what being a leader feels like, and it feels good, doesn’t it?  As a leader of the team, one takes responsibility for the team’s results.  In a self-organized team, however, every single member in the team has that same sense of pride and responsibility, as if they were the leader…because in a self-organized team, everyone is the leader!  Joint accountability need not mean joint responsibility. Servant leadership is not about a leader pretending to be a servant, ‘serving the team’, its about servants being leaders!
  2. The Team Coach.  Now imagine you are the team’s coach.  You are an expert in a skill that the team needs to learn to be successful.  How would you go about nurturing members of the team to bring your knowledge to them?  Would you feel a sense of pride and ownership?  Would you patiently work through issues with the team until they all understood them?  Would you constantly be doing research outside of the team to bring new knowledge to share?  Would you take pride in the team’s improvements and accomplishments as if they were your own?  If you have had experience as a coach, you probably answered ‘yes’ to the above.  As a coach of the team, one takes responsibility for the team’s ongoing learning and improvement.  In a self-organized team, however, every single member of the team has that same sense of obligation and nurturing, as if they were the coach…because in a self-organizing team, everyone is the coach in one or more specialties!  Every member has something to offer the team.
  3. The Team Apprentice.  Now imagine you are an apprentice on the team.  You are there to master new skills, and to learn how to perform all the positions on the team.  How do you feel?  Do you have a sense of respect for the specialties of the team members working with you?  Do you look for something to learn with every interaction?  Are you constantly trying to prove yourself to your mentors by performing your best?  If you have ever been mentored by someone you will recognize some or all of these feelings.  As an apprentice, one is humble and open-minded and values the team for what it can teach you.  In a self-organized team, however, every single member of the team has that same sense of humility and learning, as if they were the apprentice…because in a self-organizing team, everyone is an apprentice.  Although everyone has their own specialty, they are also an apprentice of the many specialties of other members.

I think that these mental attitudes, of [tweetherder text=”Leader/Coach/Apprentice thinking helps you take personal responsibility for whole team performance”]being the leader, the coach, and the apprentice captures the essence of what it means to take responsibility for the team’s performance[/tweetherder].  They are also attitudes that any team member can adopt individually.  To say that teamwork is an individual skill, is to say that every team-member should individually take responsibility for the whole of the team’s deliverables.   By practicing Leader/Coach/Apprentice the team might avoid the Diffusion of Responsibility paradox.


Paul Osborn

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