Are you too responsible?

Soon after a leader has learned about the Responsibility Process, often she will ask:

“What about the person who is too responsible?”

What a great question. Read this if you take on too much, or if you know someone who does. Three conditions are worth considering:

  • If you are the individual who takes on too much
  • If you are the teammate or leader of someone who takes on too much
  • If you have a leader who commits employees to too much

This post will tackle the first condition. Subsequent posts will address the other conditions.

The question usually rolls out like a plea for help: What does the Responsibility Process say about someone who takes on too much? I think I’m too responsible because I take on more and more even though I can’t handle more.

Because I can be a little slow, it took me years to figure out that the very best response from me was a probing question. I now reply with “Why do you take on too much?” I now predict with better than 90% accuracy what the leader will say: No one else stepped up and I felt bad it wasn’t going to get done, so I had to do something.

The Responsibility Process always leaves clues

That’s what is so cool about the Responsibility Process. It is reflected in our language so if we know what to listen for, we can learn so much about ourselves and others.

So, why can I predict that response with 90% accuracy? First, the Responsibility Process teaches that taking on too much isn’t responsible at all. How does it teach that? Because in the mental position of Responsibility you feel freedom rather than overwhelm. You are taking charge of your life and moving forward. And I never hear someone who has taken on too much sound like they feel really really good about it.

So, even though they use the term responsible, I look somewhere else on the chart for a better answer. Remember, all 7 positions in the Responsibility Process represent a different definition-in-use of responsibility. But 6 of those positions aren’t really owning it at all. For example, the phrase “my broken leg from skiing is his responsibility” may use the term responsibility but the mindset is one of Lay Blame. So when I hear the phrase “too much responsibility” I listen for the mindset rather than the word.

Someone who feels that they have to take something on is not operating in the mindset of Responsibility.

It looks much more like Obligation to me

But, you say, she does not have to take it on. Agreed. The thought of “have to” is a mindset, an unconscious choice based on an assumption of being trapped. When you do it to yourself you only think you have to. The truth is you don’t have to do anything. We choose to for whatever reason.

Here’s the second reason I can predict the response above with 90% accuracy. The Responsibility Process also teaches that each of us tends to be more conditioned toward one of the positions of irresponsibility than the others. If you are the kind of person who takes on too much, each time you take on an extra load you probably think you are doing the right thing. It’s the weight of the whole load together that feels like you are overly responsible.

But look at the answer to my probing question “Why?” They say “I felt bad” (that’s Shame) “so I had to” (that’s Obligation).

Remember, you graduate from a lower position in the Responsibility Process to a higher position when, for whatever reason, you refuse to hang out in that lower position around an upset. So, I’ve learned that about 90% of the time when someone tells me they are overly responsible, they are really Obligating themselves to something in order to avoid feeling Shame that it won’t get done.

It’s a common and recognizable pattern.

You can never have too much true responsibility

I mentioned above that taking on too much isn’t responsible at all. While it may seem like the right thing to do at the time, the truth is that you will remain overwhelmed and many things (for which others may be counting on you) will go undone. It can be seen as selfish—taking opportunity off the table for others, then doing nothing with it.

But the real reason is that there is no such thing as too much real responsibility. As you learn to own more and more of your life, you own more of your choices. And then you own more of your relationship to the universe around you. And when you do that you feel a part of everything—you interact with everything.

So taking on more is not the same as feeling a part of more. Yes, reduce your Obligation, and increase your true Response-Ability.


If you have a tendency to take on too much or coach people with such a tendency, here are some takeaways from this post:

  • Remember the keys to Responsibility are Intention, Awareness, and Confront. Read the post again to see how it is reminding you of your true intention, making you aware of your mindset, and inviting you too confront what is really true.
  • Listen to your reasons for taking on something. If your reason is to avoid feeling bad then ask yourself this: How I can let go of feeling bad without piling more on my plate?
  • Remember, you are free to choose. Yes is a choice. No is a choice.
  • You can also play to your own conscientiousness by asking yourself Is it better to take something on that you know probably won’t ever get done than to not take it on in the first place? After meditating on that question for awhile you may find your answer changing.
Posted in Responsibility on 01/15/2010 05:00 am
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