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Dear Anna,
I’ve just started a new role after my studies and I’m being told I need to “take more responsibility” at work. I’m willing to work hard to succeed in this role, but I really don’t know what I need to do differently.

It’s surprisingly tricky for leaders to describe what they need people to do. The need for clarity on what to do and how to do it is one area where there is good evidence about the difference between Millennials and other generations. “Taking more responsibility” can be code for three different things.

Accountability. Taking responsibility as a professional means ownership of what’s important. It usually includes values and a focus on what’s really important. A lawyer might think, “I’m responsible for the document answering the client’s question. Our firm really prides itself on being responsive, so it’s got to be fast and correct.” Many leaders really mean accountability when they say responsibility – after all, it’s the partner, principal or GC signing off on the document, not you. Being accountable is about feeling an obligation to the results and the outcome of your actions. The accountable lawyer might think, “This document answers the client’s question, but it’s still hard for someone to read. I’m going to add or draft this additional piece and suggest it to my manager”. Accountability can also extend to maintaining an interest in the outcome after your part is done. 

Quality. The simplest test of quality is: would you put your name to it? Relying on others to catch errors or giving your manager a sense that they are carrying responsibility for the quality of the end document could be the hidden meaning of being asked to take more responsibility. You may not be working on the most intellectually stimulating tasks, but the people you work for care deeply about the work, their clients, and their reputations. Grover Cleveland in his book Swimming Lessons for baby Sharks links the “I don’t care attitude” with taking responsibility. Sarah Powell in her survival guide to big law puts it more directly: “do not, ever, do a half-assed job”. If you don’t have the experience to create quality outcomes, you can still deliver quality with a high care factor.

Respect. Any form of being disrespectful to the firm, the team, or the people you work with can be interpreted as needing to be more responsible. If being more accountable and focusing on quality doesn’t address the issue, it could mean you need to show that you take the work seriously. Your tone, body language, and availability are all ways to demonstrate you respect the significance of the outcomes they are trying to achieve. They are looking for you to take their work as seriously as they do. 

Advising someone to be more responsible is an easier path for many leaders to take. It’s much easier than giving feedback on accountability, quality or attitude, so it’s worthwhile thinking through what the feedback could really mean.