Responsiveness and Responsibility












“She’s not responding!” – a line from a TV medical drama as an emergency team try to revive a person rushed into the emergency room in a hospital, whose heart has stopped. Drastic attempts are made to get that heart going again.

Flip over to a different medical drama on another channel. An almost identical scene – a patient on the stretcher – a medical crew surrounding him, desperate attempts to revive him, and the panicky sounding words: “His body isn’t responding!”

These two, similar, but tellingly different lines from each drama, reveal two fundamental views of responsiveness. In the first line, there’s a leaning towards the person being the one who responds or not. There’s a hint that it is “she”, the person, who is or isn’t responding. Even out cold, the whole person, head and body is included in “she”. It almost suggests that the responding is a choice, a willed act. This is supported by a follow up line in the same drama: “Come on, Jean, you can do it! Breathe!”

In the second drama, the body is the only thing referred to in terms of a response. It suggests that responsiveness lies “below the neck” – the head, being unconscious, isn’t involved at all.

These aren’t medical truths I am referring to here, but artistic choices. These are ways of viewing responsiveness in the human being. In the first medical drama, it is as if, even though the person is unconscious, there is merit in addressing the person, appealing to a level of awareness or responsiveness that just might be possible. In the same way, family members address those in a coma, and often those patients report some awareness of being addressed – sometimes literally, sometimes just in terms of a sense or an inkling.

In the second drama, we discount the head. We assume that the body itself is more of a machine that can be activated with predictable interventions. Come on! Breathe! – this isn’t addressed to the person, but the relevant organs of their body.

Now, these two archetypal views surface in the realm of business and organisations. Some see responsiveness as something the head of the organisation does – the leaders. others see responsiveness as something within the organisation – its processes, its culture, its employees. And, of course, some see both.

The danger arises when we try to improve responsiveness of the organisation’s processes and people, without addressing the responsiveness of the leadership. In other cases, the leadership may improve their responsiveness and then find that the “body” – the organisation, its processes and culture are slow or even unable to respond.

In a responsive organisation, there needs to be an ability to respond that occurs, with different quality and emphasis according to different needs and contexts, both in the “head” and in the “body”.

The ability for an organisation to respond is, literally, its response-ability, or responsibility.

Conscious businesses have high levels of responsibility (response-ability) both in leadership and in organisation.

Doctors, when examining us, often test our reflexes. Does my knee jerk when tapped in the right place with a small hammer ? If yes, the response is correct. If no, maybe something is wrong. Checking for circulation problems, how well do I feel this pinch? We may be able to improve both with activity, with exercise, with other kinds of intervention such as medication, physiotherapy or even surgery.

Improving our response-ability requires some kind of conscious action.

Without doubt, one way of improving an organisation’s response-ability is very similar to medical interventions – we need to unblock, improve circulation and flow, test and enhance reflexes.

Where in our organisation have things blocked, limiting flow or circulation?
Where have processes seized up or ground to a halt?
Where have we become numb?
What have we lost awareness of, or fallen asleep to?
What is in a state of “unconsciousness” and needs reviving or stimulating?

We improve our response-ability by using tools, skills and approaches that stimulate response, that ensure reflexivity, and that enhance either conditioned (habitual) or conscious reactions. Response-ability is the ability to reply in action to something that invokes or invites reply – a call to change, to improve, to answer, to change focus or reprioritise, and so on.

Yet another factor can limit or support our ability to respond. An elderly relative with memory loss suddenly shows signs of marked improvement when someone begins to listen to her properly, or when she is moved back into her own home, into surroundings more familiar than a hospital bed. A plant responds with better blooms or fruit when moved out of direct sunlight or into a place of cleaner air.

We can design and influence the “climate” and the “atmosphere” around a person or a process in order to enhance its ability to respond. This involves improving the responsiveNESS of a process or a person or group. A “Ness” is an inherent quality. It’s often hard to define or pin down and elements of it can change from moment to moment. If creativity is the practice of creative thinking and doing, creativeNESS is the fertile soil out of which that creativity grows. Similarly, responsiveness is the “mood” that improves responsibility, facilitates it, encourages it, engenders it, inspires it, and invites it.

Someone who has a high ability to respond may start working in a company where responsiveness is poor. It’s a culture of “no” or cynicism. Booking rooms to meet is bureaucratic. Communication is unreliable and slow. Even though Response-ABLE, that responsibility is undermined by a lack of responsiveness in the culture and even the physical organisational environment. Improving that “ness” quality, often with just small changes, can significantly awaken and ignite people’s response-ability.

On the other, after a move to a brand new office space, there may be a high degree of responsiveness in the organisation – in the design of work spaces, in light, empowering governance, in fast and friendly technology, and yet,  if people bring with them, a lack of ability to respond – if they haven’t learned how to quickly prioritise, organise incoming requests and information, dialogue effectively, flow creatively, make rapid and rigorous decisions, the responsiveness will go unnoticed and may even harm whatever response-ability there is.

Responsibility and responsiveness are really two sides of the same coin. In a responsive organisation, responsibility is located wherever and whenever it is needed. Leadership arises as a more or less proactive or reactive response to internal and external stimuli or signals. In proactive terms, the organisation will send out signals into the atmosphere and gain vital knowledge from what comes back, from echoes, measurement and reactions. In reactive terms, a climate of responsiveness is the fertile ground out of which responsible actions emerge and thrive.

An over-focus on responsiveness in the organisation’s “head” – its decision making processes, its strategy and goal setting processes, will “numb” the rest of the organisation’s responsibility. An over-focus on responsiveness in the organisation as if it were only a body, will lead to headless chicken syndrome. The organisation will respond locally, often running around in circles, fire-fighting – busy, yet unproductive.

A responsible organisation needs to be skilled in both – response-able. It needs a climate and a “ground” that enables both – a responsiveness.

This responsiveness and responsibility is the foundation for being a conscious business.

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