How Responsible Is TOO Responsible?

Responsibility is a spectrum – meaning there’s a line ranging from completely irresponsible all the way to destructive over-responsibility… and all of us are on it somewhere.  We all know that personal responsibility is something we start to learn early in life – brush your teeth, make your bed, represent yourself well, be nice to others.  But when was the last time you questioned where you sit on that line and whether it’s healthy in terms of what you’re trying to achieve?
Ideally, as leaders and team members, we all like to think we have a healthy dose of responsibility that allows us to contribute effectively to the greater good at the same time as allowing us to be the best that we can be.  However, similar to most things, life can get in the way and occasionally we need to double-check ourselves.
Most of us know what it looks like when someone won’t take full responsibility for themselves.  Either they don’t turn up as a decent human being in the first place (in which case they’re probably not on your team), or it shows up in a myriad of different “lacks”.  Perhaps they sit back when they should step forward, do as little as they can get away with doing, hand in sub-par work, or generally can’t be bothered to use their people skills effectively.  People unwilling to take full responsibility for themselves mean deadlines get missed, fingers get pointed at others and a generally negative vibe is set up within a team because of that person’s lack of engagement.

Lack of Responsibility

There are many reasons for a lack of responsibility that range from genuine lack of interest, to overwhelm, to fear of failure.  Perhaps someone lacks interest in the well-being of the team, blames others for their mistakes, complains about unfair treatment on a regular basis, and constantly relies on others for advice and instructions rather than taking initiative.  It’s tempting to hope it will go away.  Perhaps your frustration makes you want to fire the culprit.
As a leader, your aim should be to ensure your people have the required skills and resources for the job at hand and encourage them to enhance their skills if they need to.  Make sure that they have clear guidelines and defined deliverables and make it as easy as possible for them to take responsibility for their actions.  In an environment like that where you’ve taken your responsibility as a leader fully, the next steps should be clearer when you have a team member who remains disengaged.  Our responsibility lies in creating an environment for people to put up their hands and ask for more skills or resources when they’re truly needed.
Most of us are familiar with the above type of responsibility issue.  What I’d like to touch on today is the other end of the spectrum which can be just as detrimental to your team’s effectiveness and yours as the leader of that team.

Over Responsibility

Not only is it possible to be overly responsible, but the results are just as un-pretty as those who don’t engage.  The reasons can be similar, although instead of looking like procrastination because of fear of failure, at this end of the spectrum we see over-activity because of fear of failure. 
We see people who take on too much – be it their own work or the work of others.  Team members try to carry each other, and leaders try to carry their teams.  People who lag behind ask for support and further guidance and somebody has to give it to them, right?  If someone isn’t carrying their weight for whatever reason, the leader of the team is responsible for taking up the slack so that the end result isn’t affected.  Right?  To be an effective leader, you should be able to get everyone, including yourself over the finish line – or you must be failing to lead somewhere along the line.
Can you feel the frenetic stress of the above scenario?  Haven’t we all felt that way somewhere along the line?
There are a number of ways to lead more effectively and ensure your team is well supported in everything they do.  Most of it is wrapped up in making sure they have clear guidelines and targets, the skills and resources to execute, and a safe environment in which to do so, as mentioned above.  What I want to highlight today is your own personal responsibility here.
It’s human nature to feel like if you’re doing more you must be more effective.  If you’re pushing yourself, being supportive, pushing out of your comfort zone to give what you can to your team, then you’re doing all you can and more.  Surely that’s “more than”, and “more than” can only be better than “less than”?  We humans like to evaluate our importance on how busy we are, after all.
When was the last time you asked yourself where you stand on the busy / productive / responsible scale?  There are various points of intersection between these three things and not all of them are ideal.  Here are a few examples you may want to guard yourself against in your quest for effectiveness:

Taking on other people’s work in the name of teamwork

Leadership within a team is essential and if that position falls to you, you’ll want to reassess your efforts regularly.  Collaborate frequently with your team to ensure that everyone is on the right track and pointing in the same direction.  However, if you are regularly taking on the work of others in order to get things done, then there’s a problem somewhere that is detracting from your team’s full potential.  Perhaps the problem lies with a team member who’s not up to speed.  In that case, you need to readdress your strategy and the skills and resources needed.  Make sure everyone is up to scratch, and perhaps make some hard decisions if it’s called for.  
The more difficult problem is when the snag lies with you.  Many of us suffer from feeling more important the more responsibility we take on.  We believe we get points for martyring ourselves for the team.  I’ve been there myself, both at work and at home.  At the end of the day, this is just as much a failure of personal responsibility as those who take none.  Taking on responsibility that doesn’t belong to you doesn’t make you a hero.  It makes you ineffective at your own job, and means you rob someone else of the experience of theirs.  Reassess your responsibility to your team and make sure you’re not allowing your own demons to take hold.  Take personal responsibility for your own work.  Take personal responsibility for leading.

Giving support where you should return challenge

There is a time and place for helping a team member catch up on something they missed, understand something they don’t, and supporting them through a need they have.  In a strong team, these times should be scattered.  When they are more frequent, it is evidence of a problem.  When it’s the whole team that needs support and guidance, then the snag lies with leadership and communication.  More often, we have one or two team members who require constant “baby-sitting”.  Again, it’s human nature to allow our support of these people to make us feel good, when what we’re really doing is robbing them of their opportunities to grow and be better team members.  And again, this is as true at home as it is at work.
Returning a challenge rather than doing it for someone may be uncomfortable whilst we learn how to do so in a well-received and encouraging manner.  If they’re used to handing it off to you, it may be a surprise to them when you no longer receive what they’re handing you and this may feel unsupportive initially.  In the long run, when you return a challenge you communicate faith in that person’s ability to handle their responsibilities, and they in turn increase their faith in themselves.  When someone tries to hand you their stuff, hand it back to them gently and ask them how they’re going to handle it.  Perhaps suggest a clue or two about how they could go about it.  But leave it in their hands.  Concentrate on your own responsibilities and don’t rob them of theirs.

Trying to be something you’re not

Occasionally what we take on requires much of us.  If you’re inclined to leadership and personal growth, I can pretty much guarantee you’ve said yes to something at some stage without having a clear plan in your mind as to how you’d get it done.  You’ve then morphed yourself into whatever was needed to accomplish it.  This is a strength.  A superpower, in my mind.  Initiative is a spectrum too, and this rates up the strong end.  Like everything, though, there’s a tipping point at which it ceases to be healthy and starts to detract from what you’re trying to achieve.  There is a point at which pushing yourself out of your comfort zone starts to come across as inauthentic and your discomfort is clear to others.  There’s a point at which you are now acting outside of your strengths to the degree where it is counterproductive.  This is the point at which things start to fall apart and people start to look at you a little funny.  At the very least, the energy you can feel in the room starts to decline rather than grow.
Perhaps we try and speak about details we’re unprepared for or not well-versed in.  Perhaps we try and bridge gaps between team members in well-intentioned ways that end up being inappropriate or irritating.  Perhaps we try and take on things we perceive a leader would need to do rather than playing to our own strengths.
When we err on the side of over-responsibility, it’s easy to lose ourselves.  If you’re feeling flustered, overwhelmed, uncertain or fearful, then you’re too far outside your zone and what you are delivering will lose its potency.  Growth doesn’t happen in a comfort zone – we know we need to be on the edge to be going places.  But when we push too far and don’t trust that what we are is enough, then we lose authenticity and thereby, trust and respect.  I believe that we’re all uniquely gifted, and that those gifts are meant to be fully used.  I believe we’re always in the right place at the right time and that what we need to accomplish what’s set out in front of us is present and within reach.  Don’t overreach.  Check yourself.  Be authentic.  It’s more valuable than anything you could try and pretend you are that you’re not yet.

Forgetting your actual responsibility to yourself and your team

Teams work because each member has their own part to play in the resultant whole.  When everyone does their part, synergy happens and powerful energy is created and released.  Occasionally, we get tangled up with each other and our various responsibilities and this slows us down.  There is much to be said for the occasional reboot where we reassess our personal responsibilities and our effectiveness.  Where we disentangle ourselves from one another and streamline our actions.  What exactly is it that you’re responsible for?  Write it down in simple terms.  Define your actions within the guidelines of those simple terms and discipline yourself to be effective.

by Christen Killick

April 11th, 2022

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