Being responsible is a good thing and isn’t it something we want to see from our co-workers, our direct reports, our leaders? Of course it is. And yet, what happens when this valuable strength gets into over-drive? We become over-responsible. Too much of anything turns it from a strength to a weakness or a saboteur in our lives.
How Does Being Over-Responsible Show Up?
What happens when you are under stress? Does your responsibility gene kick in full speed?
Is there too much on your plate and you feel taking the time to explain thing to others will take too much time?
Do you buy into that (erroneous) saying “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”? By the way, how egotistical is that!?
Are your expectations of the quality of work you want to see not in alignment with what you get, and you take it all on yourself?
Is your ego being stroked by being the one who takes care of everything?
Are you trying to model responsibility by doing more and more instead of having an open discussion?
We all need a sense of control in our lives. This is a good thing. We know what we are doing and why we are doing it and hopefully we get the results we are looking for. Wonderful.
And then sometimes the world goes wild and some of us react by trying to control everything. It’s a natural enough response and yet holds enormous consequences both to those controlling and those who feel the effects.
Over-Responsibility creates Under-Responsibility
In the book “Rebuilding”, Dr. Bruce Fisher and Dr. Robert Alberti identify “Over-Responsibility” as an adaptive strategy. This comes from Relationship research and as far as I can see, completely reflects workplace relationships as well as personal ones. The Over/Under Responsibility dynamic was the most common unhealthy adaptation strategy dynamic they found in divorce cases.
When somebody over does responsibility, especially in reaction to a behaviour from somebody else they believe is under-responsible, it frequently does the opposite of what we want to see, which is for the other person/people to step up!
There may be certain times where we need to take on more and do it ourselves and It may help us at some point where others are “Under-Responsible” however this behaviour eventually becomes unhealthy. As with most strategies we learn at a young age, we often get recognition and attention for being responsible which makes us continue. At some point, we move away from the situation where this works and yet still apply it everywhere. Here is a huge takeaway I took from this section of the book: even when people aren’t Under-Responsible, if you are Over-Responsible, you will train them to be that way!!! There are a few unspoken messages that occur when one person is doing everything:
The Over-Responsible One Thinks:
- I must do everything. Why doesn’t anybody else do anything?
- If you want it done right, do it yourself.
- That isn’t what I wanted/asked for. They are incompetent or idiots.
- I’ll just do it. Takes less time than explaining.
- I’ll do more so they see how much I’m doing and feel bad.
The Messages Other People Receive:
- It doesn’t matter what I say or do, nothing is good enough for them.
- Why would I put effort into my work when everything’s just going to get changed anyway?
- Everything I suggest is shot down. Why are you asking for my opinion?
- I’m not/my work isn’t valued.
- My ideas don’t have merit or “they think their own ideas are the only good ones”.
- I give up. Let them do everything if they want to.
- Control freak! Micro-managing jerk.
The person controlling, or the “over-responsible” one, doesn’t see this. All they see from others is increased laziness or apathy and shoddier and shoddier work, never realizing that their behaviour is creating the situation.
I talk about the difference between Intention and Impact a lot. This is a classic example. There isn’t ill Intent from the controller. They are driven by a positive motivation. The Impact, however, is significantly mis-aligned with their Intent – what they are attempting to achieve.
What we are looking for is a 100/100 balance where each party gives 100%. Think of a table or chair. If one leg is shorter, it doesn’t help if one of the other legs grows longer. You will never get balance.
Oh, Oh! I Think I’m Doing This. What Do I do?
Glad you asked. If you notice yourself feeling or thinking from the Over-Responsible list, then consider whether you are taking on too much.
Decide what is and is not your responsibility. What would your request be of others?
Have a non-judgmental conversation with the others involved. See what each person thinks, feels, and wants from the situation. You may be surprised by what you discover – see the story following.
We Usually Only Wee What We Are Doing, Not What Others Are Doing
Here’s a tip and one of my favourite stories. Somebody I know was complaining that their partner wasn’t doing any of the housework and the agreement was to share the chores. They were feeling hard done by and very annoyed and were preparing to have some strong words with the other. I checked in a couple of weeks later. It turns out my friend never had the firm talk because before they could, their partner started a different conversation about how they were doing all the cooking and feeling resentful! Both were true. One was doing all the housework and the other was doing all the cooking. Neither one saw what the other was doing, only what they did themselves. They agreed to share both duties more equally and to have better check-ins to ensure things didn’t get out of balance again.
This kind of stuff happens all the time, so before you get all righteous, park your judgement and get curious about what conditions have created the responsibility imbalance. Maybe you’re both feeling over-responsible, don’t be afraid to have some conversations!
Responsibility sounds good but when it comes right down to it, over-responsibility, controlling, or micro-managing behaviours do not allow anybody to shine and isn’t that really what we should be aiming for? I would like it is everybody could shine, and their brilliance was not clouded by somebody else’s over done behaviours.
Rosalie Boulter, Paradigm Shifters Consulting, Oct. 8, 2018
Rosalie Boulter fully admits she has taken on both the Over and Under Responsibility roles and quite frankly, would like to stop and be in equal partnership with people. Rosalie uses the ideas in this article in her Leadership Coaching where plenty of situations come up showcasing this dynamic!