The Responsibility Trap

The Responsibility Trap

The whole area of feedback and performance is a quagmire of good intentions. There is a fear of delivering feedback and a confusion over the difference between accountability and responsibility.

When I was working with a team once, one team member shared that feedback she received in her annual review had really surprised her.  Whilst she thought she was doing really well, the feedback was quite the opposite.  She told her team members that she felt embarrassed and that their intentions of protecting her from this negative feedback had the complete opposite effect.

The issue of responsibility versus accountability surfaces regularly in my coaching sessions.  This relates to managers’ responsibility for their employees’ performance.  In particular, one question arises frequently: What are the boundaries for an employee’s performance?

It’s fair to say that each of us is responsible for our performance in work, yet it’s not always as straightforward at that.  For example, if we are not given any candid feedback about our performance, and are therefore not aware of any shortcomings, how can we realistically be expected to achieve great performance reviews?

There is a manager’s responsibility to communicate to their team members if they are falling short of expectations.  However, managers who have concerns about employees’ performance have often not communicated this.  When asked whether the employee in question knows of concerns about their performance, the responses I’ll hear are nearly always along the lines of “Well sort of….I’m not sure…Now is not the time…

Instead, managers work through all the potential areas they might be failing the employee and then move to what they can do to fix the problem.  And all of this conjecture takes place in the absence of any consultation with the employee.

In these situations, the biggest challenge facing managers is their comfort and skill in giving direct feedback.  If you are struggling with giving someone feedback on their performance ask yourself, if it was you:

(1) Would you want to know that your boss or someone else had concerns about your performance?

(2) Would you like the opportunity to understand what these concerns were and an opportunity to address them?

(3) How would you feel if someone else worked out how to ‘fix’ your ‘performance issues’ without ever consulting you?

To be effective in addressing employee performance, it has to be a two-way conversation.  You must empower your employee to take ownership and responsibility for their own performance by setting clear expectations, providing appropriate support, and giving timely feedback. Certainly, managers are accountable to the organisation for an employee’s performance, but that is very different to being responsible.

As a manager, here are some areas to help you evaluate how well an employee is positioned to succeed in their role:

Clear Direction:

  • Do they understand their role and what they are expected to deliver?
  • Do they understand how their role fits with the organisation’s purpose and objectives?

Skills Fit:

  • Do they have the tools, skills, and knowledge they need to perform their role?


  • Are they engaged and energised by their role? Do they have the support they need to be successful?

Cultural Fit:

  • How well do they understand how to get things done in this organisation?

You are accountable for the performance of your employees, and with this you have certain responsibilities. However, as discussed above, you need to respect these boundaries.  Step back and let employees be responsible for their own performance.