Managing yourself and leading others… are you being TOO responsible?

By Maria Forbes
July 29, 2022

We have all heard the idioms, “Taking responsibility is an essential element of strong leadership”, “The buck stops here”, and “Leadership is taking responsibility while others are making excuses.”  Creating your work ethic as a leader around these phrases may have unconsciously made you over-responsible.

Over-responsibility can be a hard habit to break. Do you frequently remind others what needs to be done and then get frustrated when it isn’t done “right”?  Or do you say “yes” when asked to undertake a task but then feel resentful? Do you feel responsible if a task doesn’t go the way you intended it?

There are certainly greater faults than being too responsible, but when leaders inadvertently become overly responsible, they are taking ownership of others’ tasks, mistakes, and problems, then both the leader and their team suffer. Personal productivity and collective performance are hindered by the inability of a team to develop their best contributions.  Over responsible leaders maintain too much ownership of decision making.  Excessive ownership by leaders prevents efficient team collaborations, causes a lag in meeting deadlines, and difficulty getting timely input from their team. Teams with over responsible leaders hesitate, this is a real problem if you want to encourage growth and innovation.  If your team views you as the final word on all decisions, they will second guess decisions and wait for your final word.

Overly responsible leaders can feel consistently overloaded and overwhelmed which will lead to burnout. Leaders with an overactive sense of responsibility can also disempower others, reducing their confidence in their own abilities. And if you secretly feel resentful, your team can pick up on that and catch your negative emotions. Don’t wait until you feel burned out and resentful before you find a way to accomplish a more appropriate balance of responsibility in the workplace.

Examine your attitude. You may pride yourself on being highly responsible and this approach may have served you well in the past.  However, it’s easy for your self-concept to keep you stuck in this unproductive behavior.

Give responsibilities back and empower others.  By allowing your team to struggle with a task, solve their own problems, or own up to a mistake, you will help them develop greater competence and increased confidence in their work. Expect a few setbacks at first, and resist the temptation to jump back in, or you will end up right where you started.

Accept offers to help. If someone asks if they can take on a task for you, say “yes” and then let them have ownership of that task even though it may take longer to complete.  Holding the reigns of responsibility too tight prevents them from making the right contributions, doing the work they should be doing, and allowing others to do the same.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Leaders who ask for help increase feelings of positivity, inspiration, and connection with their team.  Communicate clear, well-defined requests for help rather than ambiguously stating that you “could use some help on a project”.

Changing habits and behaviors is hard. Be patient with those around you as you move into a new pattern of balanced responsibility as you may meet initial resistance in those who have come to rely and depend on you.  Remember, rightsizing your leadership is not about avoiding work, it’s about finding an appropriate balance between the responsibilities that engages your strengths in the right work and connects your team to the work that produces their best contribution.  Prevent unnecessary burnout for yourself and more importantly empower others on your team to grow.

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