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The Responsibility Virus [Hardcover]

Roger Martin
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

Oct. 2 2002
Roger Martin's tools for conquering the Responsibility Virus:--The Frame ExperimentHelps those already stuck in over- or under-responsibility to arrest their downward spiral, one relationship at a time--The Choice-Structuring ProcessHelps members of a group create robust and compelling choices together, rather than leaping to roles of heroic leadership or passive followership--The Responsibility LadderHelps managers and subordinates work together and shows each of us when and how to take on responsibility from a boss--Redefining Leadership and FollowershipHelps leaders move from unilateral decision-making to shared responsibilityRoger Martin was named one of "Sixteen Change Agents Who Are Creating Your Future" by Fast Company magazine, which said, "Martin is not interested in business as usual-or in business school as usual."

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From Publishers Weekly

A magazine CEO clashes with his v-p of sales over lagging ad sales. Two married attorneys each try to get the upper hand while house-hunting. A team of managers, intending to collaborate, winds up competing with each other. These are just some of the power struggles Martin, dean of the University of Toronto's business school, presents in this personal and professional self-help book. Both overachieving and underachieving execs will recognize themselves and their colleagues in Martin's realistic, well-sketched (pseudonymous) conflicts, in which ego and fear of failure are presented as major roadblocks to group consensus. His 15 years of consulting experience serve him well, especially when he demonstrates, with specific examples, how most poor decision-making begins at the level of individual behavior. Figures and diagrams abound, likening portions of the book to a Power Point presentation, albeit a useful one. For example, the "Responsibility Ladder" shows the levels of responsibility to which most people gravitate in most situations. At the lowest rung of the ladder, one set of problems is created when folks who fear failure drop difficult projects on other people's desks. Martin is quick to point out, however, that organizational problems can arise at the top of the ladder, too, when managers who seek control "consider options and make [a] decision, informing other [parties] subsequently." Martin wrote this book "to help people avoid the natural predisposition to screw up the handling of responsibility in ways that undermine their goals and well-being," and he succeeds. His examples and nuggets of advice are on-target and entertaining.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Review

"A Triumph. Few management books have ever brought such psychological insight to the question of why good people often struggle in positions of leadership." --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
Roger Martin has lain down business organizations in the therapist chair, but you won't notice it because the author avoids skillfully the psychological labels currently in vogue.
If you often wonder about why you end up working more than others, why some people don't understand what you clearly state or why everybody sees what is wrong in the company and they don't do anything to fix it, this book is for you. It goes to the root of the problem, explains it plainly and offers a step by step program to solve it. The book also provides a better understanding of what's behind the Enron debacle and the government agencies mishandling of security issues before, during and after September 11.
It doesn't matter if the reader is a CEO, a manager, a professional or a secretary, he or she will find familiar faces and situations; people that could be your boss, your vice-president of sales or your managing editor. Why do we have the chance to see ourselves and others in these pages? The book is simply about human nature. It deals with the underlying emotions, culture and language that make many bureaucracies what they are: an incompetent and unfulfilled mass of otherwise intelligent, good and hard working people.
Martin explains that lack of collaboration between leadership and other parties in the organization brings an unbalanced approach to responsibility. The author describes what he calls the "heroic leader", which takes more responsibility that he or she should. Conversely, the other parties react giving up responsibility. Once the leader is unable to meet the goals, he or she sits back and takes the position of the followers.
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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How to transform a bureaucracy into a healthy organization Jan. 15 2003
By Soren Triff - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Roger Martin has lain down business organizations in the therapist chair, but you won't notice it because the author avoids skillfully the psychological labels currently in vogue.
If you often wonder about why you end up working more than others, why some people don't understand what you clearly state or why everybody sees what is wrong in the company and they don't do anything to fix it, this book is for you. It goes to the root of the problem, explains it plainly and offers a step by step program to solve it. The book also provides a better understanding of what's behind the Enron debacle and the government agencies mishandling of security issues before, during and after September 11.
It doesn't matter if the reader is a CEO, a manager, a professional or a secretary, he or she will find familiar faces and situations; people that could be your boss, your vice-president of sales or your managing editor. Why do we have the chance to see ourselves and others in these pages? The book is simply about human nature. It deals with the underlying emotions, culture and language that make many bureaucracies what they are: an incompetent and unfulfilled mass of otherwise intelligent, good and hard working people.
Martin explains that lack of collaboration between leadership and other parties in the organization brings an unbalanced approach to responsibility. The author describes what he calls the "heroic leader", which takes more responsibility that he or she should. Conversely, the other parties react giving up responsibility. Once the leader is unable to meet the goals, he or she sits back and takes the position of the followers. Meanwhile the frustrated followers take responsibility for their part, but because they can not attain the needed broad or bold solutions, parties induce the leader to take again more responsibilities that he or she can handle, and the infectious cycle of dependency starts again.
The mysterious Responsibility Virus is nothing more than the very human fear of failure. According to Chris Argyris, cited in the book, there are "governing values" that guide the way we interpret and deal with the world. They reside so ingrained in human nature that they apply to people across ages, cultures, economic status, and educational levels. Humans-Agyris claim--will always try to win, maintain control, avoid embarrassment and stay rational in any situation. Fear of failure triggers the governing values and they make us either take more responsibility (fight) or abdicate responsibility (flight).
Martin proposes the use of some "tools" to improve collaboration (choice structuring process), eliminate the mistrust and misunderstanding (frame experiment) and to balance capability and responsibility (responsibility ladder) among the parties in the organization. All these tools have the general objective of untying the person from the situation that requires attention and put aside the biased frame of mind from which we see the problem. Once all the parties involved in decision-making have a better perspective of the issue, they are in a position to find a middle ground between capabilities and responsibility.
It is at the end of the book, redefining leadership, when Martin describes the leader as what sociologists or psychologists would call a mature personality. According to the author, a leader should be capable of splitting responsibility through dialogue, apportioning responsibilities in keeping with capabilities, but more importantly, making apportionment discussable and subject performance to public testing. Although he doesn't mention it, you have the sense that it is the leader a significant carrier of the responsibility virus and also accountable for spreading his or her fear of failure throughout the organization.
In these times of leaders finger-pointing at each other and frustrated managers turned into audacious whistle-blowers this book is a timely required reading to understand not only organizations but the world around us.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Radical Reformulation of the Leader/Follower Dynamic July 24 2006
By The Peruvian Wunderkind - Published on Amazon.com
Ever notice how offices (maybe even yours) are split between the doers and the idlers? Ever notice the resentment that accrues in workplaces where control freaks do everything and ne'er-do-wells do nothing? Ever wonder how such jaded office environments came to be, and whether they ever could change?

Well, step right up, dear reader, because this book decodes the phenomenon that cruelly saps the morale out of even the most capable of offices. Labelling this task imbalance as the `responsibility virus,' Roger Martin seeks to render a diagnosis and prognosis of this nefarious sickness. Martin, with the assistance of psychological and biological principles, explains how the basic `fight or flight' response leads many to assume too much or too little responsibility in times of stress. This results in a causal chain reaction where the other workers correspondingly take positions on the opposing end of the spectrum to best complement this initial game opening. As Martin ably explains, these positions are never static; over-responsible persons eventually become under-responsible, and vice versa. This is essentially a never-ending dance that may eventually destroy an entire office.

So what to do, you ask? Martin proposes four separate strategies that are designed to purge the workplace body of this virus, all of which may be used on their own or in combination with the others, depending on the state of the virus' evolution and the players' goals. These different methods all have the share the same central goal: maximizing inter-office collaboration and thereby ridding the workplace of the responsibility virus. They are all very easy-to-understand and readily adaptable to many workplaces. Martin's generous use of case examples also provides a context to identifying problems and their respective solutions.

Martin's most intriguing strategy is to redefine the nature of true leadership and, by extension, corresponding `followership.' Martin entreats the reader not to accept the canard of the `man on the horse;' the heroic, all-knowing, all-powerful leader who can jump into the fray at any given moment and single-handedly solve a vexing problem, while his minions listlessly stand by waiting for the hero to save the day. Rather, true leadership fosters collaboration; followers contribute to the best of their abilities and open lines of communication are maintained throughout the various levels of management.

In all, this is a persuasive read that is very ably argued. Although I felt the conclusion was a bit rushed (where Martin makes a u-turn from his central argument that people's actions are dictated by their governing values), readers would be hard-pressed to write the book off as unhelpful. Use it in your business life or even your personal life; the book is a powerful suppressant of the responsibility virus.
5.0 out of 5 stars Must read for Managers and Business people alike! Feb. 19 2013
By Matthew Chambers - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Great book with tons of valuable insight into why organizations fail to hold people accountable and understand responsibilities. I'd recommend giving it a read for an eye opener! I read this then purchased it on Kindle for my Girlfriend... She was having a hard time at work with the culture and this helped her understand more of how she fit into that larger picture. This did the same for me while working at a consulting company and we fixed a lot of problems related to what is discussed in this book.
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant and engaging explanation of how to delegate and some tools to help Sept. 19 2011
By Aaron Ping - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Every business person learns the principle of delegation. We're told, over and over again, to do it. It's usually offered as a rhetorical question: "Could you delegate this?" with the implicit meaning of "I think you probably can." Martin offers some excellent advice on what LEVEL of delegation to apply and points to the main reason why delegation often fails in practice: people usually go with an all or nothing approach.

What is unique about Martin's style is that he treats the book almost as a negotation with the reader. He knows this is going to be hard, and he spends some time describing the nightmare scenario of what will happen if we fail. It's a very compelling and engaging way to write.

The "virus" takes its life from the fear of failure. Failure offends values that,whether we understand them or not, govern how we approach the world. Researchers know that deep inside we desperately want to:

* Win, don't lose
* Maintain control
* Avoid embarrassment
* Stay rational

Sadly, the prospect of failure violates all of the above values: failure equals losing; after failure, someone else takes control; failure is profoundly embarrassing; and it is well-nigh impossible to maintain rationality while all this is going on. The prospect of all of the above triggers the deeply-ingrained response to fear: the fight-or-flight mechanism. Fight equates to seizing responsibility to make sure that failure doesn't happen. Flight equates to abdicating responsibility to make sure that failure doesn't happen to you specifically.

Eventually, something snaps. The over-responsible boss keeps soaking up responsibility from subordinates nudged into greater under-responsibility. The boss feels that there was nothing to done about it because subordinates lacked necessary skills and weren't willing to develop them. I saw this first-hand when working for an electronics firm in Japan. It is one of the biggest challenges facing Japanese corporations, and can be a huge barrier to progress in any overly-hierarchical organization.

Martin describes a number of tools for inoculating against the Responsibility Virus. I focus here on one tool, The Responsibility Ladder. The Responsibility Ladder provides boss and subordinate with a language for talking about division of responsibility. Each rung of the ladder represents a relatively modest step, not a huge leap.

With the Responsibility Ladder firmly in mind, Martin describes ways the boss can respond: "It feels like you are dropping this problem in my lap. Can we try going a bit higher up the ladder? If I work on a solution to this problem, will you watch and learn so that next time you can work it out on your own? Or, if I help with the initial structuring of the problem, can you take it from there?"

The key to suppressing the Responsibility Virus is to inoculate yourself against that first reflexive step into either over- or under-responsibility. Recognizing the dangers of the Virus, combined with a tool like Martin's Responsibility Ladder, will help you match capability to responsibility assumed. This, in turn, builds confidence and capacity, rather than initiating the downward slide toward failure.

THE RESPONSIBILITY LADDER

1. Consider options and make decision, informing other party subsequently
2. Provide options to other party along with own recommendation on choice
3. Generate options for other and ask other party to make choice
4. Describe a problem to other party and ask for specific help in instructing it
5. Ask other party to solve problem, but make it clear you will watch and learn for next time
6. Drop problem on other party's desk and indicate helplessness
5.0 out of 5 stars Responsibility Virus March 29 2009
By Judith Cauley - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the underpinnings of defensive communication that results in failure.Case studies are used effectively to illustrate the responsibility virus at work. Tools are offered to deal successfully with this virus in everyday interactions.
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