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How to get clients to take responsibility

Sometimes people look for ways to avoid taking responsibility. How do you deal with those who would stand by and let you do all the work?

Question: I am working with a member of client staff who is driving me mad. She is full of praise for the work I am doing, but whenever I ask her to do something to make the project work better, I am always made to feel as if I am somehow adding to the general burden that life is placing on her. She says she wants the project to be successful, but ends up doing the minimum possible, and never seems to take any initiative. When I tackle her about this she reproaches me by saying things like, “I did what you asked me to do. What more do you want?” But when I try to engage her in a discussion about what needs to be done, she never sticks to the matter in hand and we end up without her agreeing to take responsibility for anything more than relatively trivial matters. Her general position is that she has a busy and stressful job, and I am simply adding to the pressure instead of helping her. What should I do?

Answer: There are some people who don’t seem to take responsibility for anything. You can try giving it to them, but getting them to accept it is like pouring water onto a spinning plate. It goes everywhere. The one thing it doesn’t do is stay on the plate.

You might be compounding the problem by taking up the slack so she never has to face the consequences of her lack of involvement. It’s easy to see why. Your professional reputation rests on a constructive outcome for the project. But the corollary of that is that she is then in a position to plead ignorance of what is happening, so if anything goes wrong, it is down to you. This is what the ‘plate spinning act’ is all about.

What you are experiencing is an acute form of a widely recognised human phenomenon. If people can define a situation as ‘not my problem’ they will avoid getting involved. Here is a typical example.

When my daughter was young, we took her to see a revival of the Disney ‘Jungle Book’ movie at the local multi-screen cinema. About half-way through, while the sound continued uninterrupted, the picture disappeared to be replaced by a series of slides advertising local businesses. Nobody moved for what seemed a long time. Eventually, I got up, went out of the auditorium and informed a member of staff. When I returned to my seat, the rest of the audience, most of whom would not have noticed my departure, were still passively watching the advertisements on the screen while the soundtrack rolled on.

In a situation that requires action, when there is more than one person most people seem to expect it to come from someone else. Of course, when everybody thinks like that, nothing happens. It’s called the bystander effect, and sometimes it has tragic consequences.

In his book ‘Irrationality’ the late Stuart Sutherland illustrates this theme with real-life examples, some of which are quite distressing to read. To lighten the mood he gives an account of an experiment that tried to quantify this tendency to ‘pass the buck’. Customers in a liquor store in New York State saw nothing unusual in the proprietor going out the back to check some stock while they were waiting to be served, but they were taken aback when two of their fellow customers took advantage of his absence and walked out of the store with a crate of lager saying, ‘They’ll never miss this’.

In this carefully controlled set-up, the shopkeeper was in on the experiment and the ‘thieves’ only operated when there were either one or two genuine customers in the shop. When the shopkeeper returned, he waited to see if the genuine customers said anything about the incident. If they didn’t, he asked what had happened to the two men.

When there was only one genuine customer in the store, the theft was reported 65 per cent of the time. If there were two genuine customers, one would expect the percentage of times the theft was reported to be higher – around 87 per cent if there were no other factors involved. In fact, when there were two genuine customers in the shop, the proportion of times the theft was reported dropped to 51 per cent.

Sutherland’s conclusion is that the only plausible explanation for the drop in reporting was the presence of another person. In essence, this is what is happening with your colleague.  She associates taking responsibility with nasty things happening. You are the ‘other customer in the shop’ because you are a consultant who is paid to resolve issues. She has the perfect excuse to stand by and let you take charge of things.

I’d love to be able to say that you could reassure her so that she is no longer afraid of taking responsibility, but to be successful, you would probably have to change something fundamental about the way she sees the world. I doubt that you would achieve that in the short-term in the context of a working relationship.

Instead, you have to bring home to her the personal consequences of being a bystander. What leverage do you have? Perhaps she fears your disapproval and would be prepared to act to avoid it. Perhaps it would be possible for you to carry out the project efficiently in a way that would meet the objectives but exclude an option for which she has a personal preference.

The successful delivery of an ultimatum has a number of components, each of which serves and important function. First you have to describe as objectively as possible the specific behaviour that is causing you the problem: “When I asked for time to talk about the schedule for next week, and you spent most of the meeting talking about the pressure you had been receiving from the purchasing department…”

Then you describe the effect that it had on you and why: “…I felt very frustrated because we only had a short time to meet and there was no time to agree a plan with the level of detail we needed”.

Next, you have to demonstrate that you can see things from her point of view: “I understand that the issue with purchasing is troubling you greatly…”

Now you spell out what you want: “…but in future I need us to agree specific and clear actions so that each of us knows exactly how the other is going to contribute to the project during the course of the week”.

It is possible that this is all you need to say, but from what you have told me, I think all you might get at this point is a flurry of excuses. If that happens you have a couple of options: a technique called ‘broken record’, or spelling out the consequences. You might even use both.

Broken record is where you simply repeat the sentence that begins ‘I understand’. In essence it boils down to ‘I understand you have a problem with this, but this is what is going to happen’.

Spelling out the consequences might sound like this: “If we can agree a firm schedule for allocating responsibilities between us, I will do my best to incorporate the discretionary features of the project that you would like to see happen. If we don’t agree a schedule, and I find myself having to plug the gaps, it is very unlikely that I am going to have time to install the optional features you would like to see”.

Keep your tone even and do not be put off if you get a reaction which seems designed to distract you. Simply go back to ‘I understand’ and state clearly what you want.Final