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July 21, 2022

Why you might be 'too responsible'—and how to change that

Daily Briefing

    While good leaders need to know how to take responsibility, they also must avoid the common pitfall of becoming "overly responsible" for "others' tasks, emotions, mistakes, and problems." Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Dina Smith, president of Cognitas, outlines six strategies to help leaders find an "appropriate balance of responsibility."

    1. Analyze your beliefs

    According to Smith, over-responsibility can start as early as childhood and become engrained in your sense of self. For instance, you may think of yourself as a highly responsible person—you may even find that your identity and self-worth are tied to your ability to be responsible.

    "Regardless of how the over-responsibility started, our beliefs and self-concept can keep us stuck in unproductive behavior," Smith writes. To overcome your over-responsibility habit, Smith suggests analyzing the beliefs and fears that drive it.

    "Reframe the release of responsibility and consider that you're empowering others: By allowing them to struggle with a task, solve their own problem, or own up to a mistake, you help them develop greater competence and confidence," she adds.

    2. Reallocate responsibilities

    "Whether you willingly assumed a given responsibility or it was imposed on you, it's time to return it to its rightful owner," Smith notes.

    According to Smith, you should start by identifying just one responsibility that can be returned to a specific person. "It may be giving back a simple task that someone else should be doing," she writes. "Or returning the responsibility for remembering project deadlines to another team member."

    During this process, it is necessary to communicate what you are doing and why you are doing it, while working with colleagues to design an effective transfer plan. For instance, a leader might say: "I recently audited everything on my plate. I've been writing the update emails on this initiative, and this responsibility should belong to you. I'd like you to take it over starting next week. What do you need from me to make this a smooth transition?"

    "Expect a few hiccups at first, but resist the temptation to jump back in, or you'll end up right where you started," Smith warns.

    3. Outline your true responsibilities

    To help you define your responsibilities, Smith suggests using a pie-chart exercise. To start, list everyone involved in a particular project.

    Then, draw a circle on the paper and designate responsibilities for the project to each individual or group on the list. Next, add the amounts and find the remaining percentage, which represents "a closer approximation of your actual share of responsibility," according to Smith.

    "This simple exercise can help you more accurately assess how much you're really responsible for and offer relief," Smith writes.

    4. Accept assistance

    "If someone asks if they can take something off your plate or offers to do something for you, say 'yes.'" Smith writes. "If you're worried about burdening them, understand that your acceptance of their offer allows them to enjoy the same positive feelings you enjoy from helping others."

    Once you feel more comfortable accepting support, Smith suggests making specific requests for help. "Make explicit, well-defined requests rather than vaguely stating that you 'could use some help on this project,'" she adds. "Leaders who ask for help increase feelings of positivity, inspiration, and connection on their team."

    5. Be empathetic—but don't take on others' burdens

    To protect yourself from others' emotional burdens and potential pitfalls of having "too much empathy," Smith suggests learning how to balance emotional empathy with cognitive empathy—which involves taking on someone else's viewpoint to better understand their thoughts and feelings. In comparison, emotional empathy involves feeling others' feelings, which can ultimately damage your health. 

    To learn how to practice cognitive empathy, Smith suggests seeking out additional information. "Ask questions to understand better how someone thinks and feels about their situation, rather than emotionally placing yourself in their shoes," she writes.

    "By responding as an information seeker versus an emotional sponge, you can demonstrate compassion while protecting yourself from the collateral damage of too much emotional empathy," Smith adds.

    6. Be patient with yourself

    Changing your habits and behaviors can be very difficult. It is often uncomfortable and can take much longer than expected.

    "Be patient and self-compassionate as you shift into a new pattern of balanced responsibility with those around you," Smith advises. "Setbacks are a natural part of the change process."

    Instead of belittling yourself when a lapse occurs, she suggests viewing setbacks as a learning opportunity.

    "Rightsizing your responsibility is not about shirking what is yours to own but finding a more appropriate balance," Smith writes. "By taking 100% of your responsibility, but not more, you will avoid unnecessary stress and empower and help others grow." (Smith, Harvard Business Review, 7/20)

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