A Goldilocks Take on Responsibility

The word “responsibility” stirs up a variety of reactions. In some contexts, responsibilities are heavy and burdensome. In other circumstances, they’re privileges. And frequently, the difference is just in the eye of the beholder. Anyone ever worked with someone who proverbially falls on their martyr sword every time they’re responsible for something? Or conversely, those who seem to evade it at all costs?

If there were ever a place to gut-check our assumptions in the workplace, it’s about who is responsible for what. I can’t even count the number of times during strategic planning sessions or team off-sites that people go “a-ha!” when they realize a major source of frustration is a lack of clarity about roles or task ownership.  A shared understanding of responsibility is key.

What about on an individual level? Most of my clients are senior leaders, and that by definition comes with a lot of responsibility. What’s interesting is that assumptions often go unchecked here as well. Leaders often place an undue amount of stress and anxiety on themselves by not stopping to ask: what is my responsibility here?

Which is why that’s one of the coaching questions I ask the most.


Too Hot, Too Cold or Just Right?

Leaders are often guilty of taking on too much, or at least, assuming they have to. This shows up in a variety of ways:

  1. “I have to manage everything” – which can translate into excessive worrying and workaholic tendencies
  2. “I have to know everything” –  feeling like they have to know every single thing going on with their teams, or have all the answers
  3. “I have to have an opinion” – speaking first (or too frequently) in meetings

I’m not suggesting that leaders shouldn’t work hard, be in the know, or speak boldly. Yet, these behaviors can create an unwanted reality: they can prevent others from taking responsibility. And thus the cycle continues. Leaders feel they have to do or know everything, and those around them then work under the assumption that the boss will take care of things, or has the only opinion that matters.

Hence, my question: “what are you responsible for here?”

“Here” may refer to a project, a decision, or even a single meeting. Answering this question enables you to be clear about how you want to show up for meetings – to identify what isn’t clear – to figure out what the next step is. Sometimes, the most responsible response is one of inaction: letting others speak first or take the lead.

The point is this:  knowing whether you are assuming too much or too little responsibility can’t happen unless you ask the question.

What would it be like if you asked yourself that question before every significant decision or meeting? Or better yet, asked the question publicly at the outset of meetings?


We’re All Responsible

Regardless of title or pay grade, there are certain things for which we are each always responsible:

  • Managing ourselves and how we show up
  • Owning our choices and reactions
  • Clarifying our understanding of accountability

Last but not least: don’t confuse responsibility with blame (“this is all up to you”) or martyrdom (“this is all up to me”). True responsibility is about clarity, choice, and ownership of those choices.  As author Patrick Ness said:

“Choices may be unbelievably hard but they’re never impossible. To say you have no choice is to release yourself from responsibility, and that’s not how a person with integrity acts.”

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