Effective Strategies for Allocating Workplace Responsibilities

What are the factors that cause talented individuals to become disheartened and leave their jobs one after another? Is it the toxic office politics? Is it ineffective leadership? Is it the uncertain future of the company? Is it the lack of career advancement opportunities? Is it the slow pace of work efficiency?

Yes, these factors can indeed cause significant harm to talented individuals, and it’s hard to overstate the damage they can do. However, I strongly agree with a statement by Jack Ma: “When employees quit, it’s for two reasons. First, their hearts have been wronged. Second, they didn’t get enough money.”

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To put it more plainly, it’s not as complicated as it may seem. When talented individuals leave, it’s either because they were blamed for something they shouldn’t have been or because they didn’t receive the compensation they deserved.

I intend to write an article that systematically addresses “how responsibilities should be allocated.” To be more precise, it will explore situations where tasks weren’t completed or were mishandled, determining who should shoulder the blame and who is at fault.

My personal principle is: Major responsibilities lie with superiors, minor responsibilities with subordinates, and zero responsibilities lie externally.

What does this mean?

It may not be universally applicable, but it represents my genuine perspective. I also believe that it can provide some assistance in your corporate management and personal development.

I’m sharing this with you.

01 – Major Responsibility Lies with Superiors

What does “Major Responsibility Lies with Superiors” mean?
In simple terms, when something goes wrong or is not done well, the boss, leader, or team leader is the primary responsible person. The first responsible party bears the main and largest responsibility and cannot shift blame onto others.
This is what we mean by “Major Responsibility Lies with Superiors.”

You might wonder, doesn’t this depend on the specific circumstances? Shouldn’t we analyze each situation individually?

No, it doesn’t need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Let me explain with a story.

The protagonist of this story is a lovely little girl named Little A.

One day, Little A was walking home while enjoying her ice cream.

As she reached a traffic light, a man, Mr. B, appeared beside her.

Mr. B smiled and said to Little A, “Hey there, little girl! Where are you headed? I know a really fun place. Would you like to go?”

Upon hearing about a fun place, Little A immediately became excited. “Sure, Uncle! Let’s go, let’s go!”

After walking for a while, Mr. B brought Little A to an isolated location: an unlocked construction site, Site C, with no one around.

Little A, looking puzzled, asked, “Uncle, why did you bring me here? What’s fun here?”

Mr. B replied, “Little girl, do you see that tower crane? There’s a treasure hidden up there that pirates have been searching for for decades. Do you think you can find it?”

As soon as she heard about the treasure, Little A couldn’t contain her excitement. She rushed over to the tower crane and started climbing it.

However, an “accident” occurred.

Little A lost her footing and fell heavily to the ground, resulting in her death.

Now, whose responsibility is this accident?

There’s no need to ask. It’s undoubtedly Mr. B’s responsibility. It’s clearly premeditated murder, and there’s nothing to discuss. To quote a joke from Luo Xiang, it should be punished by “canine execution.”

Yes, if the evidence is irrefutable, from the perspective of “legal experts,” this is Mr. B’s responsibility.

Punishment is necessary, and there’s nothing to debate.

However, have you noticed that this kind of gratifying allocation of responsibility may not prevent similar incidents from happening again?

So, what can be done?

This is where “economists” come into play. They argue that while Mr. B is certainly to blame, Site C shares responsibility for neglecting safety precautions and failing to lock the gate.

Huh? Why? That seems far-fetched.

It’s because, for society as a whole, the cost of preventing incidents like this by ensuring that Little A isn’t lured to a dangerous location like Site C is much lower than the cost of Site C locking the gate.

If you penalize Site C, even though they may feel unjustly accused, other construction sites will become more cautious about locking their gates in the future.

Similar incidents will significantly decrease.

So, economists consider the responsibility from the perspective of the “total societal cost” and not just individual cases.

It might sound unreasonable, but in practice, it’s often more effective than purely seeking immediate justice.

However, there’s one more “however.” Regardless of whether it’s Mr. B’s or Site C’s responsibility, Little A is still dead.

No matter who is punished or arrested, it won’t bring Little A back to life.

Therefore, from the perspective of maximizing individual benefit, Little A can only blame herself.

“I was wrong. I shouldn’t have followed Mr. B. I shouldn’t have entered Site C. I shouldn’t have climbed the tower crane.”

This level of self-awareness is necessary to protect oneself.

In another scenario, a young man was walking on a pedestrian crossing when a truck approached at high speed. His girlfriend urged him to let the truck pass first.

The young man replied confidently, “Don’t worry. Would he dare to hit me? I’m on the pedestrian crossing, and if he hits me, he’s fully responsible, and I’ll make him pay.”

In the end, the young man was hit and killed by the truck.

Whose responsibility is it now? Of course, it’s the truck driver’s responsibility.

But this understanding doesn’t bring back the young man’s life.

The young man must realize that it was his fault. He should have stepped aside because, ultimately, it was his life at stake.

You see, legal experts believe it’s Mr. B’s responsibility, economists argue it’s Site C’s responsibility, and some people think it’s Little A’s responsibility.

These are three entirely different perspectives on assigning blame, and they represent three different ways of holding someone accountable.

We’re not discussing which one is “better” today, just how to “choose” the right one.

If you are a judge or commentator, you can choose the first perspective.

If you are a rule maker or system designer, you should choose the second perspective.

But if you are a boss, leader, team leader, or manager, I suggest you choose the third perspective.

Why?

Because when something goes wrong, you are the one who stands to gain the most or lose the most.

In more blunt terms, all the people below you combined might not earn as much as the person leading them.

Once things go south, you are the one who will incur the greatest losses.

To be extreme, if the people below you are driven to the point of quitting, they can always find another job, but you, as the leader, can’t escape the consequences.

Blaming others is an easy thing to do.

But after blaming and feeling relieved, it won’t resolve the issue or change the outcome of the losses. It won’t change the fact that you are the one suffering the most significant loss.

However, the people below you do share some responsibility, right?

Of course, they do. But they have “minor responsibilities” and not “major responsibilities.”

In other words, “Minor Responsibility Lies with Subordinates.”

02 – Minor Responsibility Lies with Subordinates

What does “Minor Responsibility Lies with Subordinates” mean?
In simple terms, it means that people lower down in the hierarchy have the ability to be responsible for details but not for the overall picture.

Let me give you an example that might resonate with you.

Imagine you work as a salesperson in a real estate company. In recent years, the company has been facing significant financial difficulties, and there have been major cash flow issues. Consequently, the company decided that this year’s goal is to sell 1,000 houses to alleviate the cash flow pressure.

This target of selling 1,000 houses was broken down into individual tasks through multiple layers of delegation and breakdowns. In the end, you were assigned 10 houses to sell, John was given 8, Mike had 15 houses to sell, and so on.

A year passed quickly, but the progress toward the goal was not good. You only managed to sell 8 houses, John sold 5, and Mike, unfortunately, sold only 3. The company’s cash flow issues remained unresolved and even pushed it to the brink of bankruptcy.

Now, regarding this outcome, do you, John, and Mike share any responsibility?

Of course, you all share some responsibility. However, your responsibility is limited to “selling 2 houses less” than your target. You don’t have the ability to be responsible for “not alleviating the cash flow pressure” or “avoiding bankruptcy.”

Why is that?

Because you only had the “authority” to sell houses, and you could only earn your “benefits” after selling the houses. Therefore, you are accountable for not meeting your sales target.

Some managers like to express views like “a grain of rat feces spoils a pot of porridge.”

This is dangerous.

To be more direct, if a manager has the capability to be responsible for “the pot of porridge,” they shouldn’t be a subordinate.

This is why “Minor Responsibility Lies with Subordinates.”

But how should these minor responsibilities be fulfilled?

This is where a case-by-case analysis becomes relevant.

I’ll provide another example.

Suppose you are responsible for a live-streaming e-commerce business. Recently, you received a customer complaint. The customer reported that they purchased a pair of shoes in your live stream half a month ago but still hadn’t received the product. Despite numerous follow-ups with customer service, they hadn’t received a satisfactory resolution.

What should you do in this situation?

Take the lead in reflection.

Why? Because major responsibility lies with superiors, and you are the one suffering the most significant loss.

Customer complaints can result in customer attrition, decreased trust, and revenue losses, all of which will reflect on you.

So, first, reflect on the situation. Then, personally reach out to the customer, apologize, help facilitate communication to find a solution, and offer small gifts or vouchers as compensation.

But what about the customer service representative who made mistakes?

1) Determine whether it’s a matter of capability or willingness.
For capability issues, use a “Skill Handbook” to resolve them. What’s a Skill Handbook? It means that you know how to handle situations like these and resolve similar problems. But this knowledge shouldn’t be confined to just you. If a process can be standardized, write it into the workflow. For example, the first step is to sincerely apologize to the customer. The second step is to contact the brand, inquire, negotiate, and communicate a solution. The third step is to update the customer while apologizing again and offering compensation, and so on.

If something can be turned into a tool, include it in a guideline. For example, when a customer criticizes, genuinely acknowledge the mistake instead of saying, “Because… we…”. If a customer is unsatisfied with the proposed solution, engage in a second round of negotiations with the brand instead of saying, “This is the best solution we could get.” If a customer is unhappy with the resolution time, first promise personal compensation instead of saying, “I’ve already contacted the brand.”

For willingness issues, address them through incentives. But remember, incentives only solve willingness problems and not capability problems.

2) Require the customer service representative to write an “experience summary.”
Please note that it’s an experience summary, not a criticism or self-flagellation. It shouldn’t be about realizing the enormity of one’s mistakes, deep introspection, or promises to do better next time. Instead, it should outline how they would handle similar situations in the future.

First, how, then what? Punishment isn’t the goal; improvement is.

3) The manager needs to weigh things objectively.
After completing the first two steps, ask yourself if this customer service representative can handle a similar situation better next time. Think it through. If they still can’t handle it well, what should you do? Make it clear. It might involve penalties or parting ways, which is in the best interest of both parties.

I believe a professional can shoulder their fair share of responsibility.

However, this approach may seem unfair. Shouldn’t the brand responsible for the shipping issues also be held accountable? Why are you singling out the customer service representative for trouble?

Yes, the brand does share some responsibility. But external parties cannot be held responsible for you, and they certainly can’t take the blame for you.

Why?

Because minor responsibility lies outside.

03 – Zero Responsibility Lies Outside

What does “Zero Responsibility Lies Outside” mean?
In simple terms, it means that we tend to attribute success to external factors and failures to internal ones.

You might think this sounds like a self-blaming philosophy, but it’s not.

Let me share a story to illustrate this point.

Many years ago, I had a conversation with a PR executive from a company. I kindly reminded him that they were receiving a lot of criticism online, some of which was quite harsh. I suggested they should take these criticisms seriously and listen to their customers’ voices.

However, his response shocked me. He said, “I know. These are all trolls hired by our competitors. There are so many negative articles online, and these people are constantly trying to damage our reputation. Our mistake is that we’re just too outstanding.”

After a moment, he seemed to realize my surprised expression. So, he continued, “Alright, let’s assume we have some issues, but they shouldn’t go this far. Others are doing the same, even worse. Why are they singling us out? In the end, it’s their problem.”

At this point, I didn’t want to continue the conversation. In my view, these words could be spoken by your colleagues to console you or by your friends to comfort you, but they should never be uttered by yourself.

Why?

Because you’ve already deemed yourself “outstanding,” and the critics are just trolls and negative articles. Therefore, theoretically, except for the legal department, no one else in the organization has any value.

This attribution leaves you unable to change anything because people can only change the things they can control.

Let’s take our humble public account as an example.

At the beginning of 2022, we set a growth target for our public account, aiming to increase our followers from 2.35 million to 4 million by the end of the year.

But by the end of the year, we were disappointed and in pain. We only reached 3.5 million followers and didn’t achieve the 4 million target.

Yes, there were external factors at play. Many external factors.

For instance, the shift from the era of text-based content to the era of short videos.

People may prefer content-rich videos over text.

The declining readership of articles on public accounts, shorter content lifespans, and not performing well are not unique to us.

And various adjustments made by the platform itself.

But the key point is this: all of these external factors were beyond our control.

We couldn’t ask the platform to customize special features for us. We couldn’t demand that the trend of the short video era reverse itself. We couldn’t insist that our readers should prefer text over video.

What we could change were internal factors.

We had to provide more value to our readers. We had to reduce a piece of content’s cognitive load from a 10 to a 5, or even a 3. We needed to become a more forward-thinking business account that keeps up with the times.

Yes, this is irrational. This is like rowing against the current.

Because there is no one else who can carry your own pot of porridge.

Conclusion

We’ve previously discussed two types of responsibilities:

  1. Responsibility for achieving goals, the kind that says, “This task is on my shoulders.”
  2. Responsibility for accepting punishment, the kind that says, “If I fail, I’ll take the blame.”

Have you noticed that those who can shoulder responsibility are primarily handling the first type, while those who only know how to shift blame are typically dealing with the second type?

However, the type of responsibility we want to embrace is undoubtedly the first one. Conducting post-mortems, kickoff meetings, pledge ceremonies, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual meetings—all of these are held to achieve goals.

So, let’s stop shifting blame recklessly. People who can shoulder responsibility are the ones who can get things done. Remember, significant responsibility lies at the top, minor responsibility lies below, and zero responsibility lies outside.

Learn from your mistakes when you have them and strive to improve. Let’s hope that all of us can shoulder responsibility and achieve success.

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