Inarticulate ramblings of a management consultant

the day to day experiences of a consultant operating in weird and wonderful client situations

Rights and obligations in the corporate world

I’ve been on a few flights this week and beyond catching up with my favourite shows on the BBC iPlayer (!), the article penned by Malcolm Henry which I reposted last week, seems to be having a disturbing effect on me!

Malcolm was describing the debate in Scotland as to the establishment of a bill of rights and his proposition that a bill of obligations would be much more powerful. In his example, I have an obligation to you that the area in which you live is safe and that you have somewhere to live. I have an obligation in an example from my wife that the children in my community are fed…as opposed to a right. The concept of a right automatically assumes that someone else is going to provide the solution…the obligation fairly and squarely places the responsibility on my shoulders.

I’d like to explore this idea in the corporate / commercial world. It seems to me that there is an inherent split here which leads to problems….in a nutshell, directors have obligations and employees have rights. No doubt this is far too simplistic an explanation and there are many employees who feel their obligations very keenly but in many cases, it is this split in a sense of responsibility perhaps which lies at the heart of less than fantastic performance and the increasing sense of disillusionment which exists amongst employees. The survey a couple of weeks ago which highlighted the largest fall in 15 years is a symptom of this. The attached link is the recent Gallop study on engagement which demonstrates this beautifully.

In my experience in running transformation projects, with responsibility comes engagement. Give someone a task and a sense that they have control, influence and the ability to really contribute and no matter what their position, their length of service or grade, their sense of empowerment leads to a degree of engagement which is considerably greater than when they first walked into the room.

On the other hand, spoon feed them information, micro manage them and give them little or no responsibility and the opposite occurs.

Human beings in my experience naturally respond to a sense of responsibility and obligation to their fellow workers, friends and family.

There is no doubt that in companies where this sense of responsibility exists, innovation thrives, productivity is stronger, I suspect (although have no evidence for it) that medical leave is smaller and employee turnover is less.

A simple way of putting it would be that like Guinness, engagement is good for you and at the heart of that engagement lies a personal sense of responsibility, ownership and obligation to your fellow colleagues.

Categories: Career development, Change management, human behaviour, Human Capital, Language, psychology, Transformation

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6 replies

  1. Your observations about engagement and empowerment are spot on but I’m not so certain about the relative burdens of rights and responsibilities.

    The employer/employee relationship can become a difficult tangle of competing claims and grievances, each thinking they have rights that should be provided by the other.

    The obligations idea could help but only if applied to everyone, equally.

    Everyone involved has a primary obligation to do the best they can for the customers/clients/end users.

    Within that, each individual (employee, employer, sub-contractor, etc.) has an obligation to do the very best they can to help everyone else in the organisation meet the primary obligation.

    The antipathy of employers to employees (and vice versa) has always bemused me. It’s dispiriting and unproductive, turning work into a tedious battle of wills. Why would anyone live their life like that?

    If I ruled the world there would be no employees. Everyone would be self-employed. I wrote an article about this a few months ago which you can find here:


    • I think we are in violent agreement here Malcolm and I suppose I’m interested in addressing that antipathy between employers and employees…in the best of organisations this is less evident precisely because of a mutual sense of responsibility and even dare I say it care towards each other, what some might call a shared set of values.

      Rare though, no doubt.

      Thanks for your comment, much appreciated


      • I reckon the East India Company is to blame. It was our first multinational corporation and it was built around a military hierarchy. All about command and control rather than a common effort towards a shared goal.

        Our modern business culture doesn’t feel much different to me. Employees are NCOs and foot soldiers – human machinery that’s expected to do the work as ordered by the officers.

        In my experience very few directors and senior managers seem to understand that their role should be one of service, facilitation – making it as easy as possible for the people who actually do the work to do the work.


      • Lots of good examples in Asia of businesses that have a military flavor to them, notably HSBC, Swires, Jardines. What makes these interesting however is the high level of autonomy which exists at a country level, a reflection no doubt of the past where communications were more difficult and direction had to, by necessity, be more principle based.

        In these types of corporates, the autonomy lies not with with the ‘what’ but the ‘how’ which is very true to their military roots.


  2. There are companies without managers, W.L. Gore probably being the most well-known, and others like Morning Star in California (of course…) which has a Self-Management Institute,, but they are never going to be mainstream business models unfortunately.

    In terms of rights and obligations I think that the arguments distil back to the Hobbes/Rousseau argument of whether man is inherently good but then corrupted or in a constant state of fear that he is fighting against. If we have a clear view on this we can make a stronger case for organizations motivating people through intrinsic rather than extrinsic reward. Recent discoveries in neuroscience is, happily, showing the way on this.

    Hume had a nice position on this too, if only the debate in Scotland currently was in sight of the debate of The Age of Reason, rather than feeding the Hobbesian view of every man for himself!


    • I like how you moved the debate from filthy lucre to David Hume in one smooth step, Rodders. Another David, David Brook has been promoting the humanist agenda in recent times, in an interesting and new development for corporates to consider…feels like a shift in the conversation.


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