Responsibility Virus

January 5 2003 - Why do some people take credit for everything-dooming themselves to a lonely 'crash-and-burn,' while others go to extreme measures to hide from the spotlight? Why do 'team efforts' often end in acrimony? Dean Roger Martin of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management explains it's the fear of failure that infects companies and people with the bug he calls the Responsibility Virus.

For all the talk about empowerment and teamwork, many companies still rely on their leaders to drive needed changes through their organizations. The reason, explains Martin in his new book, "The Responsibility Virus" , is that most people are fundamentally uncomfortable with true collaboration: it makes them responsible for outcomes, yet forces them to rely on others to achieve those results. And the process of collaboration is full of many little negotiated battles in which one colleague can seem to win while another loses. Rather than risk conflict or embarrassment, people usually retreat from collaboration and accept a simpler state of affairs where only one person has clear responsibility and power.

Reluctant to invest in something they do not control, people tend to psychologically disassociate themselves, making only the minimum effort dictated by their position. To stamp out this "virus" of extreme activity or passivity, Martin offers group techniques that frame choices or roles in ways that require people to collaborate. Yet, he concludes, only people with enough confidence and commitment to risk failure can truly do so.

Drawing upon his years of experience advising the world's top companies on strategic planning, Martin shows how most poor decision-making begins at the level of individual behavior. Because most of us will do anything to win, maintain control, and avoid embarrassment, we constantly adapt our behavior to those around us. Trapped in this dynamic, we vacillate between taking charge and backing off, causing those around us to vacillate too, making it impossible to work with one another effectively. With lively case studies based on real business practice, Martin lays out tested tools that all of us can use as we negotiate choices and decisions. Eschewing management theory that focuses on issues such as centralized versus team structure in corporations, Martin lays out a wholly original way of understanding group dynamics. His sophisticated and impassioned belief in the "power of one" will be required reading for any of us who think about how we function in organizations, from the boardroom to the mailroom.