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How To Maximize Healthy Responsibility

One subject has been coming up in the coaching sessions that I’ve been doing, in the training rooms with the students, and even in my own personal life. It’s the concept of responsibility.


Time and time again, the majority of people who share with me their struggles always come back to this concept of over and under responsibility.


About Healthy Responsibility, Under Responsibility, And Over Responsibility

Healthy responsibility is taking full control, and putting your focus on managing the things you control to the best of your ability.


The question is “what do you control”?  Do you control what other people think and feel or what happens to you? No, you do not. Those are things you do not control. They are things you may influence, but that you can never control.


So, what do you control then? The answer is clear: you control what you think, what you feel, what you say, and what you do. Do you control anything else? The answer is no. I challenge you to find something beyond those 4 powers that you control. At best, you’ll find something that you influence, not something that you control.

Healthy responsibility then, is putting all your attention with those 4 powers.

  1. What you think
  2. What you say
  3. How you feel
  4. What you do

If you want the maximum healthy responsibility, as well as the maximum capacity to influence, you will have to raise the bar on how responsible you are being for those 4 powers. Easy right?


Here’s what happens though: We try to take responsibility for what other people are thinking, feeling, saying, or doing. This is called over responsibility. 


Over responsibility is being concerned or worried about whether or not other people like you. In fact, not only are you worried about it, you’re thinking about it and strategizing. You’re rehearsing conversations in your head and playing out different scenarios. You’re moderating your behavior, and changing it so that you can hopefully change what other people are going to think or feel about you.


Over responsibility is trying to rescue other people from their emotions. If someone’s having a bad day, you try to help relieve them of the “bad” part. If someone has a problem, you try to solve it for them. These are just a few examples of over responsibility.


So what? I hear you ask. What’s the problem with that?


Well the dillemna with over-responsibility is this – It creates a disempowering dynamic where you now responsible for someone’s emotions, for their thinking, their saying, and their doing. What you’re saying to that person is: “You don’t be responsible for those things. I’ll worry about them for you.” So now you’re encouraging (in some cases teaching) that person to give their problems to you and make you responsible for solving them.

Here is a clear example of this: A coaching client that I have manages an overseas team. Some things went wrong with a client because a third party gave them improper data, and long story short, the whole team committed to solve that problem together.


The team agreed that they would work the next two weekends to make it right. One member on this team agreed but then encountered a problem. She had organized to visit her boyfriend in another country. She forgot to book the flights, came to the manager of the team and told him “I forgot to book flights, and now tickets have gone up twice as much”.


She was emotional and upset about the whole thing. She wanted the manager to allow her to leave an extra day early, even though she had made the commitment. At this moment, our client (the manager) went into over responsibility rescue mode. He wanted to save her from this emotional experience, and so fretted and tried to compromise to solve her problem.


Now don’t get me wrong. Over responsibility often is at the heart of noble intentions and sincere care. The point is not “don’t care about others” not at all care deeply. The point is not all forms of caring are nurturing. 


Here’s the problem with the manager situation. The manager is now stressed and feeling guilty for choices she made, not he. Futher, there’s a whole team of people who made this commitment at their own cost, and now they can see one person wanting to get out of it. They see the leader of the team giving attention, compromising and legitimising a team member reneging on a shared agreement they all made together. Not because of a life or death issue, but because this team member didn’t want to incur costs she would have had to incur because she had forgotten to do something. How do you imagine the team who had all sacrificed for this felt about that?


The message to the team in this situation is “If you have a problem, just make some noise about it and the boss will come to your rescue and take care of it for you.” This creates a culture of under responsibility, a culture of “don’t worry if it doesn’t get done the boss will handle it”. How’s that going to go down in the future do you think?

The Challenges Associated With Under And Over Responsibility

A lot of people I talk to have this experience, so what about you, reader? Have you ever experienced something like that? Are people coming to you for their problems and asking you to find solutions for them?


In your life, are people coming to you, having a bad day or some kind of emotional struggle, and expecting you to rescue them from it?


Just to make it explicit. here are the many effects of over responsibility:


One, it creates a culture of under responsibility. It’s disempowering. It’s preventing a person from managing their own emotions, getting the feedback and tools they need to solve the problems on their own. It’s not teaching them problem solving skills. It’s in fact creating a situation where they don’t have to learn problem solving skills themselves.


Two, when you’re trying to control something you cannot control, you experience stress. The pressure of getting everything done, of saying the right words, of doing the right thing, all this mental activity is expended trying to take responsibility for something you couldn’t possibly control.


Three, over responsibility is getting you to be irresponsible for what you do control. If you’re taking responsibility for someone else, it means you’re not taking responsibility for yourself. You’re burning out, putting everyone’s needs first, not looking after yourself. In turn you don’t have the capacity to look after anyone else in a sustainable way.


Unhealthy responsibility creates spoiled children… and adults.


The ails of unhealthy responsibility are best highlighted by the metaphor of the spoiled child.  If you’re a parent, taking responsibility for your childs thinking, feeling, behaviour and speech in the early phases is normal and healthy, because your child can’t look after it themselves. However, if you’re not gradually giving more and more responsibility to your child as they age and mature to manage his or her life, then you create a spoiled child. They will become someone who is not equipped to deal with the day to day realities of life. They’re not equipped, because they’ve been deprived of that experience.


Now, you have a child with no actual skills, who turns into an under responsible adult who blames others for not delivering to their expectations, and the world is unfair and so on. Do you know anyone like that in your life? Are you maybe like that in your life? Are you a person who is disempowering themselves by hoping and seeking to be rescued by others? Because if you are, that’s no fun either. Now you’re dependant, now you’re relyiant on other people.


What To Do

So what’s a person to do if they find themselves in this kind of under responsible or over responsible state?


Here’s another metaphor for you. I like it because it highlights the viewpoint of healthy responsibility. It’s the metaphor of the poker player.

  • When you play poker, do you have control over the cards that you are handed? No you don’t.
  • Do you have control over who sits on the table with you? No you don’t.
  • Do you have control over how the people at your table play their cards? No you don’t.
  • Does preoccupying yourself with any of these things you don’t control, do you any favours? No, it doesn’t. 

Preoccupying yourself with facets of life you don’t control creates a situation where you’re distracted, worried, and anxious. This causes you to not be in a high performing mindset. Your emotions are leading you astray, you’re making silly decisions, and now, you’re not playing your cards the best way you could. You didn’t have ‘control’ over the game, but you do have influence, and now because your distracted what influence you did have is now diminished.

Is complaining about your cards the best way to play them? No it isn’t. Is spending all your time worrying about how other players may play their cards usefull? Not at all.


The best way to play your cards is to focus on one thing: your objective, and which way to play your hand that best serves that objective. All the while knowing that you’re never going to get perfect cards, that sometimes you will get great ones, sometimes bad ones.


The best poker players do not lose their cool, regardless of what’s going on. The best poker players know that the game is more than just one hand. The best poker players do not complain about their cards. They play them with the best attitude, the clearest mind, and the best way they can, given what’s on the table. All of their attention is about how they’re going to play this hand, in other words – all attention is on what they control.


Now fast forward to you. You are not responsible for how other people perceive or recieve you. The only thing you’re responsible for is what you give them. Your words, your behaviors, your attitude, you mindset, that’s the only thing you control. If you stay focused on that, then regardless of the situation, in the game of life you’re going to play like a pro, which after all, is the only thing you control.


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