Leveling Bold: The Language of Responsibility Print


Dr. Thad B. Green

The unwillingness to accept responsibility is one of the biggest problems in America today.

This is not one person's opinion. Ask any manager. Ask any teacher. Ask most parents. Look around you. Listen. When is the last time you heard this unwillingness? It comes in many forms.
"It's not my fault."

"I couldn't help it."

"Nobody would help me."

"How was I supposed to know?"
A lot of people are concerned about the unwillingness to accept responsibility. We're starting to see just how many.

In Personnel Journal, Editor Allan Halcrow calls our attention to "the re-emergence of an old trend: the ethic of personal responsibility." Halcrow gives interesting evidence in support of this re-emergence.

This article is based on Thad B. Green, Performance and Motivation Strategies for Today's Workforce: A Guide to Expectancy Therory Applications (Westport, Connecticut: Quorum Books).

The most compelling aspect of Halcrow's evidence is not in the evidence per se that he presents. Instead, it is compelling because it prompts readers to call up an abundance of their own personal evidence in support of a return to an emphasis on personal responsibility. Halcrow stimulates a powerful response.

Part of the re-emergence stems from the fact that people are getting fed up with the unwillingness to accept responsibility. It's about time. We've let it go on for too long. Yes, we have.

For every person who has not accepted responsibility, there is a person who has allowed it to happen. Someone let them get by with it. Someone did not hold them accountable.

We can change this. All of us can be part of the re-emergence of the ethic of personal responsibility.

Getting others to accept responsibility probably can be accomplished in many ways. I do not claim to know them all.

I do know that getting others to accept responsibility is not easy. It requires taking a tough stance that often is unpopular, at least initially.

This is particulary true in situations where employees simply refuse to accept the responsibility to perform. You help them in every way you can. You meet them more than half way. You try everything humanly possible. Yet, they do not responded. What can you do?

One way of getting people to accept responsibility is presented here. There are other ways. This one is intended for the most difficult of circumstances.

This article will do three things. First, the unwillingness to accept responsibility for performance will be viewed from the employees perspective. Second, the circumstances that seemingly leave managers helpless in holding employees accountable will be explored. Third, a solution called leveling bold will be offered. Specific action steps will be suggested. Examples will be given to illustrate how leveling bold can be used effectively.

The Employee's View

Employees make deliberate decisions about whether or not to accept the responsibility for meeting performance expectations. Here is how they say they go about making these decisions. It deals directly with a chain of events that unfolds on the job.

The chain of events is this--people put out some amount of effort, the effort leads to some level of individual performance, the performance leads to certain outcomes for the employee, and the outcomes lead to some amount of satisfaction to the employee.


Employees are not willing to perform unless all three of the following conditions exist while this chain of events runs its course.

1. Employees must believe effort will lead to performance. That is, they must believe they can meet performance expectations if they try.

2. Employees must believe performance will lead to outcomes. In other words, they must believe they actually will get the outcomes if they meet performance expectations.

3. Employees must believe the outcomes will be satisfying. That is, they must want the outcomes.

Employees generally look to others to create these conditions for performance. This is consistent with the organization's view that it is indeed the responsibility of management to create these conditions. Consequently, employees conclude, "I'm not responsible for my performance. Someone else is."

The Manager's View

Individual managers tend to hold contradictory views. On one hand they feel responsibile for the performance of their employees. This is what they have been trained to do. It is what they are paid for. So, they behave in a responsible way. Yet, at the same time they expect employees to be responsible for their own behavior. Who really is responsible? The manager? The employee? Or is it a shared responsibility?

Managers find the responsibility a difficult one. There are many occasions when managers simply cannot give employees what they want. Organizations have ways of doing things that are not going to change. Whether it is entrenched bureaucracy, union contracts, corporate policy, or other factors, the manager's hands often are tied.

Promotions may be based on seniority, or organizational politics, or otherwise out of the control of the manager. Pay raises sometimes are determined by union contracts, or a policy of giving across the board raises. Other factors, like the reduction of middle managers, economic instability, cash flow problems, shrinking markets, and downsizing, for example, also may mean managers cannot give employees what they want and deserve.

How do employees respond when they don't get what they want? Some reluctantly accept it and perform only at the level necessary to keep their job. Others blame the organization, perhaps even their manager, and become filled with resentment and bitterness. They tend to perform poorly, and often cause problems as a way of getting back at those who are depriving them of what they feel they deserve. Other employees hang on to a false hope that things will get better. However, their performance will drop below their level of capability. In every case, employee motivation, effort, and, performance suffer.

Leveling Bold

When employees are performing poorly because they are not getting what they want and deserve, and there is nothing you can do about it, what should you do? It is time to level with employees by being open and honest. Leveling bold is leveling about sensitive issues. It is the solution of last resort. It is used when everything else has failed, when you have given up, but are unwilling for poor performance to continue.

Leveling bold is used because there is a chance the employee will make a turnaround when confronted with your decision not to tolerate performance problems any longer and your willingness to take whatever action is necessary to resolve the situation.

How do you go about leveling bold with employees? Are there any steps to follow? Yes. There is a pattern that works. Let's look at the steps by applying them to a real situation. Read the following case and diagnose the problem. How would you deal with it?

When Richard was hired, he had been out of work over a year. During his first four months as head of shipping and receiving, he had performed well. Then things began to change. Customers started complaining about shipments being wrong and late. Paperwork errors caused problems with inventory control and customer billing. The warehouse was in a mess and procedures that had been well established were no longer being followed. Richard admitted things were not going well. He was vocal about (1) how much he wanted to be promoted, (2) how promotions should based on performance, not seniority, and (3) how he could hardly make himself come to work in view of this injustice. Richard liked the company, but knew that its stability, low turnover, and a promotion policy based on seniority gave him little opportunity for a promotion. When confronted with his performance, Richard always took the position that is was the company that was holding him back. How would you handle this situation with Richard?

What is the problem? Since promotions are based on seniority, not performance, Richard has concluded he will not advance in the company, at least not for a very long time. What are the possible solutions? Richard can not have what he wants. There seem to be two options. One is to live with the situation and hope Richard's performance will improve. The other is to replace Richard with someone who can and will do the job.

Although some managers would choose to "live with" the problem, this really is not an acceptable solution. It may be necessary to terminate Richard, but leveling bold is a last-chance solution before taking this final step. Leveling bold is an eight-step process. As the steps are presented, the application of each step will be demonstrated by applying it to the case of Richard's unwillingness to accept responsibility for his performance.

The first step in leveling bold is to indicate that performance is not acceptable and why. Let employees know exactly where they stand. This is not a time to scream and shout and be critical, but don't tip toe through the tulips, either. Be objective and call it the way it is. Be specific and clear. Do not leave any room for doubt.

Manager: "Richard, I wanted to talk with you about the quality of your work over the last couple of months. The number of shipments that have been wrong or late have more than doubled, and customers are complaining. The increase in paperwork errors also is a problem. And the warehouse is very disorganized. I have reports here to document all of this. You started out doing a great job, but you performance the last two months has not been acceptable.

Second, indicate that you are unwilling to tolerate unacceptable performance any longer. Say it like you mean it and mean it when you say it. There is no need to be harsh or threatening, but don't beat around the bush. Be firm. Be cool and objective, rather than getting hot and emotional. The idea is to make it clear where you stand. Unacceptable performance can not continue. That's the message.

Manager: "Things simply cannot continue this way any longer."

Third, point out that the circumstances surrounding the situation are not going to change. Be clear about this. Do not leave any room for hope. False hope is a problem and any belief that things will change should be dispelled. This means making it clear that what the employee wants simply is not possible. Explain why so the employee understands the circumstances and that the situation is beyond your control.

Manager: "I can see you don't agree with our promotion policy. The company has been very successful. Employees like it here and they are rewarded for their loyalty, dedication, and long term commitment. This is not going to change. I couldn't change it if I wanted to."

Fourth, present the options. The full range of possibilities includes only three options--the employee quitting, terminating the employee, or improving performance. This is not a time for ambiguity. Employees need to know where they stand. Let them know what happens if performance improves and what happens if it doesn't. Be sure they see that continuing to perform poorly is not an option.

Manager: "I want to be honest with you about where you stand now. I hope you will get things running smoothly like they were a couple of months back, but you would need to show progress immediately. If not, you will have to leave."

Fifth, point out that this is the employee's decision. Make it clear that the employee can choose to quit or to improve performance, and that not choosing means choosing means being terminated. This employee choice is important. It gives employees control over their own destiny and it gives you a better chance of getting to a good decision.

Manager: "This is your decision. You can stay, provided you start turning things around right away. If you decide not to do this, you will in effect be choosing to leave. It’s up to you."

Sixth, establish a deadline for the employee to make a decision. Set a day and time. Make it the employee's responsibility to come to you. Also, indicate the consequences of not making the decision on time. The main consequence should be the loss of the opportunity to decide. Do not have a misunderstanding here. Make it clear that if the employee doesn't decide, you will.

Manager: "I'd like you to give me your decision by the end of the day

Thursday. If I don't hear from you by then, I'll decide how to handle it."

Seventh, be sure the employee understands you have the authority to decide, and the neccessary backing to make your decision stick. Don't bluff on this. Be certain you have the authority and support needed. This is no time for a mistake. The employee may challenge you. Don't just say you have the authority and backing. Give some evidence, if nothing more than a few details of the results of a meeting you had with your boss discussing the situation.

Manager: "I told the people above me how I wanted to handle this with you. They agree this is the best way and expect me to let them know the outcome first thing Friday."

The eighth and final step is to offer your help in making the decision, and in implementing it. Indicate your willingness to further explore the options, answer questions, react to ideas, etc. as the employee works through making a decision. In addition, point out your willingness to help find another job, or improve current performance. The idea is to be caring, helpful, and supportive. There is no need to be otherwise. This is a difficult and stressful situation for the employee and part of your job as a manager is to help in working through it. And remember, all of your employees will be watching and judging how do this.

Manager: "This is a hard decision for you to make. If I can help you think through it or do anything else, be sure to let me know. If you decide to leave, I'll do whatever I can to help you get another job. If you choose to stay, I'll help in any way I can to get things back on track. I want this to be a good decision for you as well as everybody here. Let me know if I can help and I'll see you on Thursday."

This eight-step process for leveling bold places the responsiblity for solving performance problems squarely on the shoulders of the employee. Doing so is appropriate when you have exhausted all other possible options available to you short of termination. This gives employees an opportunity to solve their own problem.

Leveling bold gives employees one final chance to turn things around using their own initiative. This is a better option than moving directly to termination, which would be the nineth step if employees are not willing to accept responsibility for their performance and engineer a turnaround on their own.


The results of leveling bold are varied. One, some employees will have employment options and will pursue them, either quitting to take a new job or transferring within the organization. Two, other employees will have options, but will conclude that things would not be any better elsewhere. Three, some employees will realize they do not have other job options. In the latter two cases, employees come to the realization that improving performance is in their best interest.

All three possible results of leveling bold are better than living with employee's who don't perform. Nothing good can come from allowing employees to avoid the responsibility for performance.

When all other options have been exhausted, leveling bold is the option of choice for dealing effectively with employees who are unwilling to accept responsibility.

In summary, two points are to be made. First, leveling bold is a form of open and honest communication that anyone can understand. Second, the unmistakable message is simple--you are expected to be responsible. It is for these two reasons that we say, leveling bold is the language of responsibility.

Leveling bold, therefore, is an excellent way to become part of the re-emergence of the ethic of personal responsibility as described by Halcrow.

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