Helping People Take Responsibility

What Does It Mean to Take Ownership of Your Work?

Helping People Take Responsibility - Encouraging Accountability

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People can duck responsibility for their actions through laziness.

A sign of wisdom and maturity is when you come to terms with the realization that your decisions cause your rewards and consequences. You are responsible for your life, and your ultimate success depends on the choices you make. – Denis Waitley, author and coach

Abigail manages a team of exceptional people who work well together to accomplish their goals.

However, one person, Jim, consistently misses deadlines. When asked why, he points the finger at one of his teammates, instead of admitting that his own procrastination caused him to fail.

Jim's behavior has a significant negative impact. People don't want to work with him, and they resent his apathetic attitude and his unwillingness to change.

It can be frustrating to have people like Jim on your team. However, there are steps that you can take to put things right. In this article, we'll discuss strategies that you can use to do this.

What Causes a Lack of Responsibility?

People duck responsibility for reasons ranging from simple laziness or a fear of failure, through to a sense of feeling overwhelmed by the scale of a problem or a situation.

Whatever the reason, if people fail to take responsibility, they'll fail in their jobs, they'll fail their teams, and they'll fail to grow as individuals. All of this makes it important to address the issue.

Signs of Not Being Responsible

Sometimes it isn't obvious when people are shirking their responsibilities, but there are several signs to watch out for. These include:

  • Lacking interest in their work, and in the well-being of the team.
  • Blaming others for mistakes and failures.
  • Missing deadlines.
  • Avoiding challenging tasks and projects, and not taking risks.
  • Regularly complaining about unfair treatment by team leaders and members and engaging in self-pity.
  • Avoiding taking initiative, and being dependent on others for work, advice and instructions.
  • Lacking trust in team members and leaders.
  • Making excuses regularly – they may often say "It's not my fault," or "That's unfair."

Ways to Encourage Responsibility

When team members don't take responsibility for their actions, some managers may just hope that the problem goes away. Others may try to remove these people from their teams completely.

Neither approach is ideal. The situation will likely get worse if you leave it alone, while laying people off should be a last resort – especially if you're dealing with someone who has the potential to be an effective team member.

Instead, aim to provide your people with the skills and resources needed to do their jobs. Then create an environment where it's easy for them to take responsibility for their decisions and actions.

We'll now explore a variety of strategies and tools that you can use to get people to take responsibility.

Start by Talking

Your first step is to talk to the individuals concerned. Are there circumstances that are contributing to the situation, or problems that you can deal with? After all, bad things can happen in people's lives, and this can affect their behavior at work.

Then provide feedback, so that the individuals know that their behavior needs to change. The GROW Model may be useful here. What you learn in your discussion provides the context for the next actions that you take.


Make sure that you have clear, accurate examples that you can cite when you provide feedback. If you don't, your arguments won't stand up, and you'll risk leaving the individual feeling victimized.

Ensure Adequate Resources

Make sure that your people have the resources that they need to do their job. This might include providing training, equipment, or access to mentors and coaches. This is a key step in helping people take responsibility for their work. If they don't have the "tools" needed to do their jobs, it's easy to shun responsibility.


Take our How Well Do You Develop Your People? self-test to improve your team development skills.

Communicate Roles, Responsibilities and Objectives

Your people need to know clearly what their roles and responsibilities are. Ensure that you have an up-to-date job description for each team member, and be as detailed as possible about every responsibility that they have.

When working with your team on a project, use a Responsibility Assignment Matrix to help keep assignments and responsibilities clear. You may also want to use a Team Charter to define everyone's roles and responsibilities within the team.

Sometimes, people don't take responsibility because they feel apathetic about their work. They can't see how their efforts tie into the "bigger picture." So, clarify how their work relates to the larger goals of the organization. Highlight the importance of what they're doing, and clearly explain the negative direct and indirect consequences that occur when they don't do their work properly.

Re-Engage People

Think about how you feel when you're doing work that you care about. You take responsibility for your actions because you have a deep sense of pride in what you're doing. The same will likely hold true for your people: by working on re-engaging them, you can lead your people toward personal responsibility.

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Your people will be more engaged if their work aligns with their values. Talk to them to find out what they are. Then, illustrate how their daily tasks and responsibilities align with those values.

Team members could also be disengaged because they're not in the right role. Take some time to discover their strengths and weaknesses, and analyze whether or not they're using their strengths. If not, they might be better suited in a different role. (You can also use job crafting techniques to reshape their role to fit them better.)


Make sure that you're familiar with Herzberg's Motivators and Hygiene Factors. He identified common sources of job dissatisfaction and what motivates people. You must do both in order for team members to be happy and engaged in their work.

Help People To Take Control

Sometimes, people feel that they have no control over their lives. To them, it doesn't matter what they do or how hard they work, nothing makes much of a difference.

People who believe that outside forces constantly influence their life are said to have an "external locus of control," while those who believe that their actions shape events, have an internal one. Ask team members to take our Locus of Control quiz so that you can determine where they fall on this spectrum.

If you discover that people have an external locus of control, you can help them overcome this. Set modest goals to set up some quick wins; then help them build their self-confidence. Also, remind them of their strengths and past success, and teach them how to think positively – instead of engaging in damaging, negative self-talk.

You can also break up large tasks or projects into smaller steps. A huge project or goal can make people feel overwhelmed, and, instead of being accountable for their work, they're far more likely to avoid responsibility.


People who don't take responsibility often play the blame game. If team members start to point the finger of blame, stop them immediately. Shift their focus away from assigning blame, and direct it to what needs to be done to fix the problem.

Give Plenty of Praise

Finally, be sure to give your people plenty of praise when they do take responsibility. And help them improve by providing them with consistent, effective and fair feedback.

Don't Micromanage

If you're having problems with members of your team not taking responsibility, it's also worth taking a fresh look at your own management style. Perhaps you aren't delegating clearly, or you're micromanaging them – if you hover over their shoulder, they're going to be reluctant to do anything without you in the background.

So, learn the art of delegation, and avoid micromanagement. Give your people the freedom to make their own decisions, but be ready to guide them in the right direction if required. If they're able to make decisions on their own, they'll start to realize that their efforts really do make a difference.


These strategies will go a long way toward getting people to take responsibility. However, some people simply may not be up to the job. Do what you sensibly can, but don't keep them "hanging around" once you've exhausted all reasonable options. (Clearly, make sure that you fully comply with national employment law and internal HR policies when you take any action.)

Tip 2:

As you work through this process, document everything, so that you can explain your actions if challenged.

Key Points

People who don't take responsibility for their work or actions are likely to have a negative impact on their team. Look for apathy, finger pointing, missed deadlines, or phrases like "It's not my fault" to spot team members who are avoiding accountability.

To help people take more responsibility for their work, provide them with the skills and resources to do their job. Create an environment that makes it easy for them to change.

Help them to take responsibility for their decisions and actions by:

  • Providing adequate resources.
  • Communicating roles, responsibilities, and objectives.
  • Re-engaging your team.
  • Helping team members to take control.
  • Avoiding micromanagement.
  • Giving praise.

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Comments (15)
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hi ngrande,

    Welcome to the Club, and thank you for your comment.

    Although I can see where you're coming from in suggesting this deals with Servant Leadership, I would suggest it is more in line with Collaborative Intelligence.

    Servant Leadership presents the idea of humility in leadership roles. Helping people take responsibility encourages collaboration, but does not focus so much on humility in teams.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago ngrande wrote
    Excellent article to help EMPOWER your staff. Fails right inline with Servant Leadership.
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi BrianCamille,

    Thank you for the feedback on the article. Instilling people with confidence and empowering people to own their work is the essence of personal accountability.

    Mind Tools Team
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