How to Get People to Accept Responsibility

Many workers today are like four-year-olds — or so it sometimes seems.

They depend on their managers to rescue them, looking for external motivation to get the job done. “This behavior is expected when you look at how families and the school system have helped raise passive-dependent individuals,” says Vistage speaker Del Poling . “Children learn to stay in line and not speak until an authority figure says it’s all right to speak.”

According to Poling, by the time you hire someone, that person has had 12 to18 years of such conditioning. They are very likely determined to be a “good” employee by waiting for you to tell them what to do.

A Life Pattern

“The Four-Year-Old Syndrome,” says Poling, “is characterized by two specific behaviors: denial (‘I don’t know’) and projection (blame). It’s extreme passive dependency.”

Children who are nurtured and challenged toward maturity soon replace these behaviors. They learn to be responsible for themselves and to not practice denial and projection, explains Poling. On the other hand, children who are not properly cared for and held accountable for their actions continue to use denial and projection into their adult years — in effect, staying stuck in the mindset of a child.

“In the context of the four-year-old worker,” says Poling, “they expect you to motivate and make decisions for them. But it isn’t your responsibility to motivate people to do their jobs. That’s your employees’ responsibility. By being pulled into your employees’ four-year-old thinking, you are feeding their passive-dependent nature.”

Don’t be seduced into feeding these passive-dependent behaviors:

  1. Employees who “want to be motivated.” That is, they expect some outside force or some other person to motivate them.
  2. Employees who want to be spoon-fed with new knowledge and skills.
  3. Employees who know what the problems are and how to solve them but do nothing about them.
  4. Employees who could determine ways to work better and serve customers better but do nothing about either.

How to Sidestep the Syndrome

To effectively sidestep ultimately destructive behaviors, avoid hiring “four-year-olds” by:

  1. Being sure that your recruiting practices don’t invite four-year-olds
  2. Noticing when job applicants act out four-year-old-behaviors without realizing it by arriving late for the interview appointment, giving excuses, blaming others for failures and shortcomings and focusing on what the hiring company will do for the applicant
  3. Pursuing how the applicant has approached and solved problems
  4. Looking and listening for patterns of accepting responsibility
  5. Giving the applicant some legitimate challenges

“Remember, what you see in the job interview is generally a preview of coming attractions,” says Poling.

Don’t foster or feed the syndrome, either. “Do the rules, regulations and procedures of the organization reward four-year-old-behavior?” Poling asks. “The behavior you reward is the behavior you get.” Real four-year-olds need to be told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it, and it’s the same for your employees who demonstrate behavior of the four-year-old syndrome. They do not want to think or take responsibility for their own behavior. They want all expectations spelled out in writing — in detail.

Four Ways to Deal with Passive Dependents

For individuals who are blatant passive dependents, Poling recommends a few key approaches:

  1. Give them permission to do something on their own. Some people may have been held back by previous management and need your permission to begin taking responsibility. Look at individuals in your organization who haven’t been given a chance. “Take off their chains and let these people fly,” says Poling. “Before you let them loose, however, talk about operative assumptions. If they begin making decisions based on their own assumptions without first listening to your goals, they will be totally out of sync with where you are in the process. If you don’t talk about the operative assumptions on the front end, you may be disappointed with your employee’s performance and yank them back.”
  2. Make sure your people have the competencies to get the job done. Some employees want to take the initiative and be responsible but lack the knowledge and skills to be successful. “Begin by looking at your management staff. Do they have the expertise and proficiencies to be successful? You owe it to yourself and your organization to challenge people to be competent,” says Poling. “Give individuals a roadmap of the abilities they need and follow up with appropriate training.”
  3. Squeeze them. “What do you do with employees who know what to do but aren’t stepping forward to do it? Put the squeeze on by making them responsible for the job,” says Poling. “Be there to back them up. Don’t set them up for failure — make sure they can do the job successfully. Some individuals just need a little intervention.”
  4. Deal with tough cases. “Some passive dependents have their four-year-old behavior reinforced by family and friends. If the friend or family situation feeds the passive dependency, the likelihood of changing these behaviors in the workplace is not very good,” Poling explains.

“Regardless of the changes you make, about 10 percent of your employees won’t alter their passive-dependent behaviors. While they may change initially to conform and pacify you, they eventually slip into their old habits,” he explains. “These are people who will probably go through your discipline process to eventually be terminated.

“Become aware of four-year-old behavior during the hiring process and during your staff interactions,” says Poling. “Place the responsibility for the consequences of their behaviors and actions on the rightful shoulders of your employees. Don’t buy into the four-year-old syndrome.”

Vistage speaker Del Poling  is founder and managing principal of Del R. Poling Consulting International, a St. Petersburg, Florida-based consulting and management organization. His areas of expertise include change management, organization audits, problem identification/ solving, mission and strategic planning and professional development. He has also served as a faculty member for several organizations.

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