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!