“With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”

I am working on an article on the responsibility of managers today. This is supposed to be part of a collection, which will appear in a series of publications of the Berlin School of Economics. I am still a little confused about this term “responsibility” – it has not ever been a central topic of my coaching practice (or theory), except as responsibility towards oneself (and the company) not too squander energy and resources on “neurotic” fears and angst, and to look after oneself in a similar fashion – with self-respect and reflection. But this is a concept for the individual. Its effectiveness is based on the assumption that a well-balanced, responsible individual will benefit its company more than an out-of-balance, irresponsible one. As a core value, the understanding of responsibility suffers from the same issue that besets all the other core values: the transfer from, or even the relationship between, the individual and the organisation is far from obvious. Thus, it is much easier (and oh-so-common since at least a decade) to speak of “corporate social responsibility”. Individual managerial responsibility on the other hand is a leadership quality, related to other core values such as respect and integrity. One philosophical basis is the concept of “free will”. As you see, we immediately find ourselves in a jungle!

This could be a research question:

What is the precise relationship between individual, managerial and corporate responsibility?

Example: say, a manager has got an employee, who she does not want to promote because she believes that he overestimates his abilities. This is however coupled with great ambition on the side of this employee. There are different messages now – corporate: you need to help the system look out for the best performers. Managerial: you have to support your subordinates and develop them. Individual: this guy is responsible for himself!

Another question: can coaching help to make a manager behave (and/or feel) more responsible?

Answer: possibly yes, at least by making these three different dimensions of responsibility transparent and thus giving the individual (who always maintains the greatest presence during coaching) a true choice.

And yet another question: who has got “the power” (when it comes to making responsible decisions): the corp, the manager, or his ego?

Answer: my experience as a manager and coach says “the ego” (call it “the self” if you wish), or “individual value > management value > corporate value”. But this could be another example of difference between theory-in-use and espoused theory of behaviour (cp. Chris Argyris): the espoused theory says “corporate value > management value > individual value” – just the opposite of the theory-in-use!

An amusing tangent: did you know that there is a foundation planning a Statue of Responsibility, based on a proposal by Viktor Frankl?

Out of a discussion with C came a couple of different ideas, sort of a “how does it feel to be a supernatural” kind of theme:

(1) I watched “Interview with the Vampire” last night – remember the arch-vampire “Armand”? When the protagonist Louis asks Armand what he had left to learn, Armand responds something along the lines of “not to have regrets”. Here then is a supernatural being (the vampire) who oversees centuries of human history, and the sum of his teachings is “no regrets” – the opposite of “feeling responsible”. Louis on the other hand, is virtually defined by his painfully acute sense of responsibility towards life (even though he is dead). Are modern managers vampires?

(2) Talked about “X” people who have left their social class by education and practice – e.g. a middle-class member who becomes a scholar spending his life on thinking and writing about 12th century tapestries. I am such an X myself, sort of classless, which means that I lost ground (class-consciousness is a powerful anchor), but I also gained freedom. And so was my father, and his father before him. This introduces the question of social (or intellectual? or hierarchical?) class – what is the relationship between class and responsibility? Operatives, middle and senior managers: do they all share one concept and practice of managerial responsibility?

Cp. Paul Fussell’s “Class” (1983), p. 179: what it means to be “X” has even got a systemic dimension:

You become an X person, or, to put it more bluntly, you earn X-personhood by a strenuous effort of discovery in which curiosity and originality are indispensable. And in discovering that you can become an X person you find the only escape from class. Entering category X often requires flight from parents and forebears.

Transferring the concept, experimentally, to the corporation, I would say: entering category X often requires flight from corporate and managerial tags and values.

(3) Found Donna Haraways (old) Cyborg Manifesto (1985) on the net. Now, this is a postmodern feminist essay first of all. But the “cyborg” concept might be useful to a modern debate on “responsibility”. Haraway writes:

A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction.

(This is the context in which my colleague HW calls herself a “cyborg”, now I get it!) But anyway, if social reality is constructed, a work of fiction, then this implies more freedom with respect to making choices – it follows that there is more responsibility than hitherto thought, and also, that responsibility itself is a more flexible, bendable term. It may still be a “core value” allright, but that “core” is not a comfortably hard ball, but an amoeba!

And managers are also cyborgs: a hybrid of individual and organisational being – parts of which are provided by the GREAT machine, other parts of which come from the person’s ancestors.

The “supernatural” theme could be important – cp. e.g. J K Galbraith’s view in “The Economics of Innocent Fraud” (the company is not lead by shareholders, and not shareholder value is the prime objective, but it is lead by managers, who have different objectives – management values?).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.