Supervisory Responsibility

I have come to realize that the corporate definition of ‘responsibility’ is very different than the common definition. I am thinking, in particular, of ‘supervisory responsibility’.

Consider this situation. A subordinate (say, an assistant) prepares and distributes advertisements for a position; she interviews various applicants, selects one and notifies him of his success, then trains the new person, and periodically checks his work performance. One might think the subordinate’s job description would include “recruit, hire, train, and supervise”.

One would be wrong. Subordinates can’t hire. Only superordinates (supervisors) can hire. Subordinates can’t supervise. Only superordinates can supervise. Say what? But the subordinate did hire and supervise, so obviously she can hire and supervise. Nope.

And apparently this set-up is common: the subordinate actually does X, but the superordinate is responsible for X. If there’s a problem, he’s the one who’ll be held accountable.

First, there’s a substantial incoherence here. If indeed the subordinate is not responsible, why is she reprimanded and sometimes even fired for making a mistake or doing a poor job? The notion of penalty implies the notion of responsibility. Why blame A for X if A isn’t responsible? Shouldn’t we blame whoever’s responsible? Shouldn’t the superordinate, then, be fired if the subordinate messes up? (Yeah right. That’ll happen. When pigs fly.)

Second, this conception of responsibility infantilizes the subordinate. A sign of maturity is that one takes responsibility for one’s actions. Only with children (and the mentally incompetent) is another held responsible. Denying the subordinate that responsibility is, then, insisting on juvenile (or incompetent) status.

Third, it puts a great deal of strain on the superordinate. It is very stressful to be responsible for someone else’s behaviour. One has the responsibility, but not the control. No wonder they develop ulcers.

And no wonder they develop into control freaks – a fourth problem. If one is responsible for something, one is surely going to try to have some control over that something. And so superordinates try to control their subordinates: they give orders, they criticize, they reprimand, etc. The greater the subordinate’s autonomy (insistence on maturity), the more antagonistic the relationship will become.

Fifth, there’s an ethical problem. It’s simply not fair to hold people responsible for something over which they have no control. This moral principle is even threaded throughout our legal system.

This conception of responsibility is unfair in another way as well, and this is a sixth problem. Usually, one of the relevant aspects of a job description that determines the salary for that position is degree of responsibility. So the subordinate does X, and is awarded, say, 10 points on the salary scale. But the superordinate is responsible for X, and is awarded 100 points. Not fair.

This logical sleight-of-hand makes the superordinate’s job look so much more demanding – after all, they’re responsible for so very much: if they supervise ten people, they’re responsible for ten whole jobs! No wonder they should get paid ten times as much! But, of course, there’s something wrong here – the meaning of the term ‘responsible’ gets changed half way through: in the first case, ‘responsible for it’ means ‘doing it’, but in the second case, ‘responsible for it’ means ‘seeing that it gets done’.

Let me suggest that supervisory responsibility was instituted as a checks-and-balance sort of thing, as a quality control mechanism. And this is a good thing. But having someone be responsible for making sure another person does his/her job is quite different than having that someone be responsible for the other person’s job.

And the first kind of responsibility need not have a great deal more status and salary attached to it. In fact, it need not have any more status and salary attached to it. A doing X, B doing Y, C doing Z, and D double-checking A, B, and C doing X, Y, and Z – why shouldn’t all four people be considered equal in terms of status and salary? In fact, one could argue that A, B, and C should have more status and salary than D. It usually takes more skill and effort to do X, Y, and Z, to a standard than to see whether they got done to that standard. And if B messes up, why can’t B be held responsible for not doing Y, and D held responsible for not checking B’s work (which is different from D being held responsible for not doing Y)? And why can’t B have control over how to do Y, and D have control over how to check B doing Y (which is different from D having control over B)? There would be a need for B’s work to be accessible to D, but accessible is not the same as controllable. This way, both responsibility and control are kept in their proper spheres. And both B and D are treated like adults. And neither is put on a fast track to an ulcer.

So why does the corporate world maintain the problematic view of responsibility? Well, it sure keeps the hierarchy cemented in place. The very terms ‘subordinate’ and ‘superordinate’ mean ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ (in fact, one often hears references to ‘one’s superiors’ rather than, as is more accurate, ‘one’s organizational superiors’). So my guess is that the desire to control is not necessarily linked to responsibility; more often, it’s linked to ego.


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