Not My Problem Dot Com, or The Right Relationship to Responsibility

I was onsite interviewing several employees about their work environment, when, between meetings, I couldn’t help but overhear the playful banter of two IT guys, pouring over a monitor at a station nearby.

They were trying to fix one problem when they apparently uncovered another, unrelated problem. They paused for a second. Then, one said:

“Not my problem dot com.”

He stared into the screen and moved on to something else. I giggled quietly. And I wondered: was he speaking truth, or could it actually have been his problem? It made me reflect on the confusions we all harbor about responsibility and our relationship to it.

So often, we take on problems that don’t really belong to us. Conversely, problems we need to consider, we disown.

What is the right relationship to responsibility?

Here are a few insights and guidelines that may offer some answers:

1. If You’re Avoiding Blame, Check Again

“It’s not my fault”

A large area of confusion about responsibility is around fault. People believe that if it is not their fault, it is not their responsibility. This is not always true.

You see litter on the sidewalk outside your doorstep.

It’s a mess you didn’t make. But it affects you.

A coworker isn’t pulling his weight but you’ve got a lot on your plate. In the end it won’t be your fault, so you don’t do or say anything.

If an issue is connected to our ability to do our very best at our job, it is our problem. What we choose to do about it — right responsibility — it is relative to our resources and priorities.

Clean up the mess. Check in and problem solve with the coworker.

There are so many issues alive right not that are not your fault. Issues such as racism, hunger and violence may not even effect you personally so it is easy to pretend they do not exist. Since it is our responsibility to manage our energy and not over extend our resources, we need to be realistic about how much we take on in addressing these larger issues. But as card carrying members of the human race, I believe it is our responsibility to consider them and if our actions contribute to the problems in any way.

2. Concern About Feelings Can Be Misleading

“I don’t want to hurt his or her feelings.”

Usually, that’s a good thing! But the largest area of confusion about responsibility that I encounter is in relationship to feelings.

Consider: A boss has been instructed to take an employee off one team and quickly put her on another, but he stalls. He knows her talents are very well suited for this new venture, but he fears she will not take it well. He stays up at night, talks to way too many people, gets mixed opinions, and takes extra anxiety meds. As he stalls, he gets flack from the other team lead who needs the help.

He is a caring, sensitive person.
But he believes he is responsible for her feelings.

At the office, being aware of your impact is important, but feeling responsible for others’ feelings robs you of your authority. At home, feeling responsible for others’ feelings causes us to adopt controlling, invasive or passive aggressive behavior.

Clarifying your true responsibility doesn’t mean you become callous or uncaring. Being sensitive is a gift, and being considerate adds value to any relationship. It is important to be mindful of the impact your actions have on others.

Others’ behaviors, however, can become our problem.

Which leads us to the final clarification about responsibility.

3. Make Someone Happy, but Just Don’t Take Responsibility for It

“I just want him/her to be happy.”

Of course you do!!!

Isn’t that what we all wish for our loved ones and, what we want our superiors to feel about the work we’ve done?

And yet, similar to feeling responsible for others’ feelings, while it is our duty to work hard, it is not our responsibility to make others happy. This can be so difficult to accept.

Our bosses, due to a variety of limitations, may not be able to acknowledge us in the ways we want. We need to find a way to be happy with our efforts.

At work, we are responsible for connecting our actions to the outcomes we were hired for. At home, we are responsible for connecting our actions to our promises and agreements.

Hope this post helps you clarify your relationship to responsibility and improve your relationships at work and in general!

If you have a convoluted relationship to responsibility that limits you, your relationships or your work in any way, let me know!

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16 responses to “Not My Problem Dot Com, or The Right Relationship to Responsibility”

  1. Nice to hear from you Blair. Enjoyed your post. I can relate to #2 on your list. Unfortunately having to make tough calls is part of a manager or leaders job description. Having to move someone out of one position into another is difficult. You know the move is good for the organization – but you want to do it in such a way so you don’t destroy the person’s self-esteem. Or worse yet – have them quit. – Cheers

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Hi Brian,
      Nice to hear from you and thanks for your comments! Yes, tough actions we need to take at work need to be done thoughtfully. There is a subtle but powerful difference between care and responsibility. And risk — that someone will not do what we ask, is also a factor.

  2. Fear of taking responsibility. That’s a big issue a lot of people struggle with. I find that fear of taking responsibility is associated to fear of failure and potentially being judged for it.

    “I don’t want to upset…” I read that as an excuse to stop yourself from taking initiative and learning something new even if it’s not in your scope of work. It starting to sound a lot like procrastination.

    Excellent post Blair!!

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Thanks for reading and for your comments, Bruno! Yes! Another myth: fear of failure does tend to get in the way of taking responsibility. You hit the nail on the head: I don’t want to upset others is often an excuse not to do something for ourselves.

  3. Terri Klass says:

    Well done, Blair! Being able to take responsibility for our actions is critical and necessary for any leader. I think sometimes organizations don’t have a culture of accountability because there is not a culture of trust. It always begins with building a foundation of trust so that people will feel safe to speak up, even if it is a controversial comment. Loved your, “not my problem dot com”!

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Terri — you raise a great point. Trust needs to come first. What that means specifically to me is that the environment is one in which people will not be publicly shamed or humiliated for being accountable, but are free to grow and learn — as long as their transgressions are not chronic.

  4. Joy Guthrie says:

    Great post, Blair! I think about this differently when I think about something that’s outward facing or something that’s inward facing. For example, if a customer identifies a problem to someone, I am a proponent of that initial contact w/the customer owning the problem until it’s resolved. (Had a IBM rep who did that when I was the customer and I’ve always remembered how phenomenal a customer experience that was.) In the example you gave, it’s possible that the developer did uncover someone else’s issue. Does he then own the problem until resolution? My inside voice says no; but, he does own the responsibility to make sure that the responsible person sees the same problem he did. Thought provoking post! Thank you.

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Joy, Thanks for reading and your rich response! In great customer service, it is one’s job to make customers feel cared for and see to it that their issues are resolved. I love it when there is follow through like that — it is responsibility at its best. I still believe that the agent is not responsible for the customers’ feelings — if this is true, then misdirected rage might feel like a personal attack. I also agree that the IT guy may have stumbled upon a problem that wasn’t his at all. But if it was a problem that was connected to the well being of his firm, I would consider it his responsibility to alert the person who’s problem it was. Thanks again, Joy!

  5. Wonderful and thought-provoking, Blair. I think it can be a real trick to balance responsibility with care, and not suck ourselves into the multiple traps that await us when we treat others as an extension of ourselves. I think it was David Schnarch of “Passionate Marriage” fame that used the term “fusion” to describe taking over someone else’s life, then blaming the other person or oneself when things don’t go “as planned.” When it happens, it can be very worthwhile to sort it out, seeing better the shadow of that fusion and overcoming self-serving claims of responsibility and faultlessness. Especially true for that manager who blows up or in whenever someone who reports to him/her makes a mistake. Thanks for a great take on a complicated subject!

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Dan thanks so much for commenting. Such great points: It is so true that fusing (I also call it merging) is an easy and dangerous trap to get stuck in, one that creates resentment and broad confusion around responsibility. And that manager does a great disservice by turning his employees’ accountability into a shame fest. I so appreciate you showing up here!

  6. Tom Rhodes says:

    Blair,
    I know at times I am overwhelmed by feeling responsible for the feeling of others, especially my children. I am learning that I can not add all their emotions to mine. I can have empathy and listen to their concerns, at the same time I don’t control their happiness. I have to do what I believe is right as I am accountable first to me.
    Great article.

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Tom, thanks for stopping by with your wise words. The work you are doing is very hard. Your children will thank you for it and the freedom is rewarding. Thank you again for stopping by.

  7. Hi Blair,

    That really sounds like a bad office culture. In a great office culture everyone should feel like a team and that another persons problems are their own because we all work toward the same goal!

    Thanks
    Victor Björklund

  8. I read this a while ago and it was so timely. I didn’t have a chance to comment then, but I just wanted to say that I think your use of the examples is especially wonderful and I feel I can especially relate to some of them. I think that it’s a topic we continually revisit over the course of our lives, and it’s fascinating to me to discover how we may be taking responsibility for things without even being aware that we are doing so! As you said so beautifully above: “So often, we take on problems that don’t really belong to us. Conversely, problems we need to consider, we disown.” I was thinking just now that perhaps we often miss the responsibilities that are ours, simply because we feel overwhelmed by the responsibility we’ve taken for things that are not really our responsibility to begin with! These other issues that we take on knowingly or unknowingly become a legit excuse to avoid doing the ‘right thing’. (Right thing I’m using here loosely as something you know intuitively and not at all to suggest there is only one right way.) Often it’s not a matter of someone wanting to do the right thing, but perhaps s/he is not quite sure of how to make it work. Getting caught up in the details of how to make it work means we miss the moment to respond … and later – to make it worse – we may beat ourselves up unnecessarily. I also think that sometimes children set a great example for doing the right thing at the right time, because perhaps they feel they have nothing to lose and they are not concerned about ‘reputation management’, i.e., they don’t care about what others will think or say. What I mean here is not about the clean-your-room sort of responsibility, but more about our responsibility to others and being there for others — kids seem to step up fearlessly sometimes for others and in the very way that they stand up for others, they do the same for themselves. As you point out, it can be a tricky territory. Would you consider writing a post about how you’ve known or sensed when you’ve taken on the ‘right’ responsibilities for you with an example in personal and professional realms?

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Manisha,
      Thanks for the rich response, and for suggesting a follow-up topic! I love requests and will consider writing that article – – I think it will be very useful. Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments! I love looking to children as a mirror / teacher and the notion that our false beliefs about responsibility are what’s taking up all the space and therefore making right responsibility choices becomes overwhelming. I’ll let you know when the right responsibility article goes live.

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