Decisions and their weight become heavier once the burden of responsibility is yours to carry.  When we become accountable for an outcome, we suddenly become more deliberate about avoiding a poor outcome and we rally more brain power toward the solution or the execution of the task.

In one small decision, I witnessed the shift of that weight and the reaction of one of my NCOs when it became his to carry.  During a Wingman Day, the NCO asked if he’d be able to run an errand.  At first I didn’t understand what he was asking me—I paused and realized that he wanted my permission to run the errand between Wingman Day events.  He wanted my permission so that he was not accountable for his absence.  In this way, he could be “careless” in the conduct of his temporary absence—besides, if I cleared him, he could say ‘my boss told me I could’.  David Marquet calls this ‘psychological responsibility’—I’d be accountable if I gave him permission, not him.

I did something he didn’t expect.  I turned to the NCO and told him that it was HIS decision to make.  Immediately, he recoiled and reacted as though a flashlight had been shined in his face.  You could almost see the weight of responsibility pushing down on him–he was jittery.  He started talking to his coworkers to get their insight to mitigate risk if he were to run the errand and still make the next Wingman Day event.  Now that he was responsible and accountable, he began to be more careful of the outcome.  I noted how the psychological responsibility he suddenly assumed spurred more deliberate action—it was an experiment I conducted on the fly after having read David Marquet’s book, ‘Turn the Ship Around!’.  In the book, he institutes a system of intent-based leadership on board a submarine where individuals below him made decisions—effectively giving his crew control.  One of the concepts he discusses was psychological responsibility and engaging the crew through deliberate action.  The NCO ran the errand but was back quickly because he put in place measures to ensure he’d be at the next event—he was accountable if he wasn’t.

We apply too many flimsy, bureaucratic controls to mitigate risks.  In the maintenance community, I’ve seen the addition of in-house checklists, briefing QA failures at roll call and even added supervision to tasks.  None of these seemed to work.  Psychological responsibility isn’t tangible and therefore doesn’t appear to be an action to mitigate brainless mistakes, but I saw firsthand how shifting it made someone react more deliberately in an innocuous situation. Think about the controls in your organization meant to engage people and ask how effective they are.  Chances are high that if you shifted responsibility closer to the decision points on the job, you’d see more deliberate action and a more steady hand in holding the weight of that responsibility.

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