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Book Review: The Responsibility Virus Helps Fear Undermine Collaboration

Is Collaboration Really the Key to Effectiveness?

In recent years, businesses have been looking to new organizational structures to enhance their effectiveness - actively involving more of the organisation in business decisions, to harness the creativity of all employees. It is proposed that such "empowered" organizations would outperform their command-and-control competitors, but experienced consultant and business school dean Roger Martin has seen the promise of this approach realised only infrequently, and has offered a provocative diagnosis of the problem: he calls it the Responsibility Virus. In his book, The Responsibility Virus: How Control Freaks, Shrinking Violets and the Rest of Us Can Harness the Power of True Partnership, he unmasks the dynamic of the Virus, and offers a set of tools to help those who recognise the Virus in their own workplace. These are practices that can gradually shift the leadership dynamic toward a healthier balance, helping individuals change the way they interact with superiors and subordinates. Well received since its publication in 2002, this book describes a barrier that collaborative process adoption frequently encounters, and offers practical help for those who need to overcome it in order to find more reward, challenge and value in their work. While addressing basic psychological issues, the author takes a practical approach to the Virus which anyone may apply in their workplace.

The book is a breath of fresh air for those of us focused on process: certainly it reinforced what I already know instinctively: process change is not enough. A change of attitude is essential to the success of process improvement efforts, and this extends out into the wider organization of which the team is a living part. With its practical thinking tools, the book will be of particular interest to coaches, change agents and others working to sow organisational change, whether that work focuses up, down or across the corporate org chart. It's surprising to me that I've never heard it mentioned among my coaching and training peers, so here I offer an overview of an important book which, it seems to me, belongs on the bookshelf of all who work to help organisations shift toward a more collaborative culture.

Available in paperback, it's definitely worth a look - heck, it's got to be cheaper than all those painkiller bottles hidden in desk drawers in some organisations.


Observations from a Long Career in Corporate Consulting

Roger Martin, a Harvard MBA, is the Dean of the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, and previously directed Monitor Company, a US strategy consulting firm, where he established Monitor University and served as global co-head of the firm for two years. In his years of experience, Martin saw that poor decision-making, even when endemic in an organization, actually began at the level of individual behaviour. Because most of us will do anything to win, maintain control, and avoid embarrassment, we spend our energy constantly adapting our behaviour to those around us: following when we should lead, heroically doing too much when we should delegate it, and remaining silent when we should speak. Trapped in this dynamic, we vacillate between taking charge and backing off, becoming alternately over- and under-responsible (and supplying material for endless Dilbert cartoons).

A prior edition of this book was entitled "Responsibility Virus: How To Cure You & Your Company Of The Fear Of Failure." Martin's analysis is that fear of failure drives the behaviours that generate the Virus, and the failure it inevitably brings. It's a vicious cycle: fear of failure generates more failure, which endlessly generates more fear and more failure. Of course, we don't talk about this... what fear? What failure? Martin says that as long as this dynamic goes addressed, heroic leaders and passive followers will continue pop up in the wrong places, short-circuiting collaboration regardless of all attempts to introduce new organizational patterns.

Our current strategy for dealing with the fear of failure undermines our ability and willingness to engage in collaborative activities with others who would otherwise be valuable partners. It also drives us apart by spurring miscommunication, mistrust, and misunderstanding... it is causing our capabilities to make decisions and engage in meaningful collaborations to atrophy over time. [Martin, p.259]

How The Responsibility Virus Undermines Collaboration

(c) Roger Martin

Martin links the operation of the Virus to our primal "fight or flight" response to perceived threat. At work, the threat comes in the form of fear of failure - fear is a powerful emotion, and one we don't readily talk about on the job. But this is not necessarily about failure on the large scale of a project or assignment: it goes down to the level of "losing" in a particular interaction with a colleague. Martin proposes that the values of saving face ("win, don't lose", "avoid embarrassment") and maintaining the upper hand in the interchange ("retain control", "remain rational") push us to see these interactions as competitions which must be "won". This is very different than the kind of interaction required for collaboration.

Despite our desire to "stay rational", this competitive spirit triggers the fight-or-flight response, which ironically short-circuits rational thought. Our stressed reaction is to "fight" (take full responsibility for the situation) or "flee" (accept almost no responsibility for it). In addition, the "avoid embarrassment" value dictates that we do this without discussing it with others, which would reveal our discomfort or weakness. Everyone ends up operating as a sole agent. And, of course, it's too risky to work with someone else, it increases the chance of failure, since one cannot control the other person, who may mess up. When the goal is to keep one's image of control intact it's much "safer" to play it alone, to narrow the scope of one's responsibility (or reduce the risk introduced by one's subordinates by micromanaging them). This leads to what Martin calls "narrow perfectionism," a mode of operation also known to some as CYA. We are least fearful when we can be sure of a clear goal that's easy to achieve, a strategy that leads us to pass up challenges and growth opportunities in favour of sure success. Martin invokes Enron as an example. Not sure how your organization stacks up? An online Responsibility Virus quiz is available on the author's website.

This Virus Costs the Business Too Much

True collaboration entails a shift from "I'm in charge" to "we're in charge." This is risky in a Virus-infected environment, so the temptation is to try to retain control of the so-called collaboration, which could also turn into a power struggle. So, the Responsibility Virus undermines collaboration between employees, then extends further, preventing collaboration with clients, partner firms and suppliers. Martin notes that "large projects spanning diverse geographies can't be integrated without taming the Virus." With a large team, the Virus is particularly costly: if a large team cannot harness true collaboration, it is no more capable than a small team to handle complex problems, since everyone is essentially working alone and economies of scale are not realized. The collective effect is "mass-specialization without the benefits of cross-functional integration," local fiefdoms, functional silos, strained outsourcing relationships and not-invented-here syndrome. Martin cites episodes in the history of IBM and McDonalds. This may also sound familiar to developers in many large, traditional software shops.

Opportunities to collaborate lie wasted when employees see no "safe" way to navigate these dangerous waters, and competitive advantage is not realized. By avoiding risk, they never learn the skills or courage required to prudently take on risk, increasing fear. Choice-making skills atrophy and the Virus becomes entrenched. A "safe" boredom sets in, even when the brightest and best have been hired. And then, when it all falls apart spectacularly, there are few lessons learned: there has been little communication between players, and the advent of project failure is unlikely to suddenly inspire transparency. It's simply an opportunity for a new "hero" to step in and save the day, at least for now.

Fighting the Virus: Roger Martin's Anti-Viral Toolkit

Martin offers a set of tools for addressing various aspects of the Virus without threatening the governing values of win, don't lose; maintain control; avoid embarrassment; and stay rational. These are The Choice Structuring Process, The Frame Experiment, The Responsibility Ladder, and the Redefinition of Leadership and Followership. Though Martin suggests that the tools can be most powerful when used openly by a whole team, the tools can also be quietly applied by individuals in individual conversations: "all can inoculate themselves from infection by integrating into their practice the four tools ... outlined."

The Choice Structuring Process helps counteract the prevailing fear of losing - losing control, losing objectivity, losing the argument. It provides a straight-forward seven-step process for facilitating group conversations in non-threatening ways that encourage all participants to engage despite perceived inequalities in power.

The Frame Experiment is a simple remedial thinking tool for holding productive conversations under stressful conditions. Use it to break out of the self-reinforcing loop of "You may fail, so how can I give you that responsibility?" It reminds the person using it to think differently about, to reframe, the elements of the interaction: self, other and task at hand. It was designed to be a flexible tool for organizing problem-solving conversations rather than for dictating their outcomes. When they use it, Martin claims people often are surprised and encouraged... things go much better than they'd expected.

The Responsibility Ladder is a developmental tool that builds new skills while avoiding the detrimental effects of the Virus. It seeks to create small steps and a productive language system to help managers and their subordinates openly talk about finding the correct balance of responsibility for specific tasks. It is most effective as a tool if a team whose members work together regularly uses it explicitly. When they want to mutually agree on a redistribution of responsibility on a given issue, the Responsibility Ladder can help them structure the conversation in a more open and constructive way. The beauty it is that you can start wherever you are on the Ladder and make progress toward the middle states, where true collaboration lies.

The Responsibility Ladder - Subordinate's View  (c) Roger Martin

The fourth tool, the Redefinition of Leadership and Followership is important, since the heroic definition of leadership aligned with images from books and movies leads directly to the Responsibility Virus. This new definition can displace the counter-productive role definitions that reinforce the Virus, enabling colleagues to work in true partnership in a way that builds and strengthens their working relationship and enhances their chances of success.

Two chapters illustrate the application of these tools: "Mired in Under-Responsibility" and "Trapped in Over-Responsibility both apply the same pattern (which is also summarized on the book's website):

  1. Visualize the end result of the path you are currently travelling (to motivate you)
  2. Reframe the other (under-responsible / over-responsible) party (using the Frame Experiment)
  3. Pick a burning issue on which you want to work (one small step at a time)
  4. Engage in a Responsibility Ladder conversation
  5. Use the Choice Structuring tool to gain comfort (because, yes, it could be awkward)
  6. Do it and reflect (if the tools are being explicitly used, both parties might participate)
  7. Repeat (over and over)

Each of these chapters includes a sample walk-through of the process (by the under-responsible subordinate, and by the over-responsible superior), as they apply the tools.

Martin also dedicates a whole chapter to the specific case of "the professional," who may be set up from the beginning for the Virus (and so, for failure) by way their role is traditionally framed. Within the software world, this could include job titles like consultant and coach, roles that polarize the professional (who is "capable" and therefore responsible) and the client (who obviously isn't, or they wouldn't ask for help - and in their embarrassment they remain passive). This capability gap can be aggravated professionals jargon that hides the reasoning process and makes their pronouncements seem inscrutable to lay criticism and opinion. Martin notes that this suboptimizes the engagement because the client's wisdom and experience are not brought to bear on the choices made by the professional. Use of the Responsibility Virus tools can gradually restore a healthier balance and change the relationship positively toward greater collaboration, even if only the professional applies them, and whether it is done explicitly or in a less obvious manner. So, while it helps to develop a more successful and satisfying short term outcome, the professional is also teaching the client a new way to approach collaboration.

But is this Realistic?

It's tempting to think... "sounds good, but I couldn't try it here." Martin encourages readers to try it despite the natural reticence the approach generally evokes.

Virtually everyone with whom I discuss fighting the Responsibility Virus recognizes it in their lives, but asks: "What can I really do by myself? So what if I change my behaviour? ... I'll get trampled."

It feels a universally daunting and intimidating prospect to use the tools available to combat the Virus. But, in fact, it isn't nearly so daunting in practice.... Without our own cooperation, the would-be over-responsible leader or would-be under-responsible follower is incapable of launching the Responsibility Virus. [Martin, p.261]

We can use the four tools to help us take baby steps in the right direction. We need no one's permission or concurrence. We simply need to act... by taking positive action we have the effect of attracting our colleagues to balance responsibility, rather than pushing them to the extremes of responsibility. They will feel better about us even if they have no idea why they do. [Martin, p.263]


Though we cannot impose new values, Martin proposes that use of his tools provide an environment where it's safe to explore the invitation to embrace a new set of values, which provide an alternative to the dysfunctional ones driving the Virus. Interestingly, there are strong correlations between these new values and ideas embodied in the Agile software development approach:

  • Win, don't lose is replaced by make the most informed choice, driven by dialogue and collaboration. This is echoed in the Agile Manifesto's value of "collaboration over negotiation."
  • Maintain control is no longer required when we generate internal commitment instead, which allows us to engage in true dialogue and exchange of ideas. The Agile manifesto's mandate to "Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done" voices this same radical invitation to rethink control and accountability.
  • Avoid embarrassment paradoxically shifts toward apply open testing to all choices. This may seem counter-intuitive, but making a better choice will, in fact, be less embarrassing in the long run and balances the short term embarrassment of open testing. This test-driven approach is common on Agile development teams, where it is sometimes extended outward throughout the organization in the form of "Product Visioning", "Elevator Tests", Chartering or "Management Tests".
  • Stay rational gives way to permission to be authentic, bringing the strength of both logic and emotions to our choices. Which sounds like a good thing, given that studies show we don't make choices as rationally as we'd like to think, anyway. This value is reinforced on Agile teams that embrace the principle that "the most efficient and effective method of conveying information ... is face-to-face conversation."

Surely a toolset to help shift corporate culture is worth a look! This book would make a good candidate for an in-house or interest group book study over lunch or supper. However, it's important to note that Martin doesn't claim to innoculate against failure itself, but only against the dysfunctional Virus that undermines success:

In embracing a new set of governing values, we choose to live our lives on the forward edge of our capabilities. This new way will produce failure, but it will be failure of a distinctly better sort. The Responsibility Virus produces hopeless failures resulting from extreme mismatches in capabilities and responsibilities, which leads to cover-up rather than learning. Failures under the new set of governing values - I predict - will be failures at the margins of our capabilities... from this failure we will be able to learn immensely, because our analysis and reflection won't be circumscribed by fear. [Martin, p.269]

The Solution to Organizational Auto-Immunity?

We sometimes speak of the "paradigm shift" inherent in the move to an approach rooted in collaboration and self-organization. One can see how, in an organization rife with the Responsibility Virus, the invitation to embrace this kind of shift could evoke a strong reaction (which, of course, cannot be voiced openly given the prevailing culture). Some have called the ensuing rejection of the new approach, or ejection of the team itself, "being antibodied." This fits rather well with the Virus metaphor - where the Virus is the dominant modus operandi, it seems natural that a shift in values would be perceived as a threat, something to be "dealt with" rather than embraced, no matter how healthy the new values are.

Where teams are have implemented a regular learning cycle to inspect their behaviour and adapt, opportunities should naturally appear to help them shift gradually into this more collaborative mode, with less dependency and control. This is particularly effective when a neutral coach can encourage small steps toward the new model, and Martin's book may provide a useful tool here. But the rest of the organization may not be equally well equipped, being outside the main area targetted for process change. Martin's tools seem to provide a much needed way to help other parts of the organization also grow into greater collaboration, keeping pace with the changes happening inside the self-organizing team.


It didn't take me long to recognise the Virus when reading this book, and having seen many instances of the Virus, I probably could have skipped some of the illustrative fictional case studies that fill out the book. None the less, The Responsibility Virus: How Control Freaks, Shrinking Violets and the Rest of Us Can Harness the Power of True Partnership by Roger Martin offered me hope for a pernicious organizational culture issue that more than once has subverted the work I do in improving team processes. Time will tell, but I expect it will be a useful tool in my facilitator toolkit... as it would be for anyone striving to work more collaboratively with their colleagues.

The Responsibility Virus: How Control Freaks, Shrinking Violets and the Rest of Us Can Harness the Power of True Partnership
Roger Martin
Basic Books, 2002

About the Author

Deborah Hartmann is a bilingual Agile practitioner, trainer and coach based in Toronto and working internationally. Deborah is passionate about making work both valuable to the business and enjoyable for the team. She's coached large and small businesses in Agile adoption, has been Lead Editor for InfoQ's Agile Community since April 2006, and facilitates OpenSpace conferences for the XP and BarCamp communities in Canada and the US

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