Are you an over, under or self responsible leader?

Adult patterns and personalities are rooted in early childhood interpretations and responses to the world (as noted in personality theories and assessments). A common pattern is how leaders handle responsibility. It does not take a complex assessment to determine which leader is going flourish, burn out and side line based on how they approach responsibility. Leaders who are self (and system) responsible vs. over-responsible tend to be more empowering and achieve incredible results while creating resilience. The tendency toward over responsibility also leads to great results early on and can be psychologically and emotionally consuming. Over responsibility can result in derailing much needed energy toward a purposeful vision, interpersonal connections and strategic outcomes. The over-responsible can also disempower others and create more dependencies over time.

Where would you place yourself?

Over Responsible: 

  • Does too much for others and tries to solve other people’s problems, including taking on their reactions and emotions.
  • Creates more emotional and psychological dependence by taking on what that other leaders should drive (subtle disempowerment). 
  • Does not have clear boundaries, over commits by easily saying yes without a clear risk/decision matrix; allows over intrusion – often resulting in workaholism.
  • Is often fear based, (fear of other’s opinions, disappointment or retaliation etc.) and as a result minimizes the truth or bends on previously agreed to terms (easily emotionally manipulated through guilt).
  • Creates pseudo trust through self-sacrifice and unreasonable giving that creates resentment. Psychological and emotional authority are often outside of the leader though they exert a lot of control.

Self (and System) Responsible: 

  • Takes responsibility for their leadership area including strategy, tasks and outcomes without blaming others (individuals, teams or orgs. etc.) and comfortably carries the responsibility associated with their role(s).
  • Develops others to become self-responsible by holding people accountable to agreed upon goals and standards (creates space for others to establish meaningful goals).
  • Displays genuine empathy/compassion and does not become overly involved in “fixing” others emotions or mental states – retains focus on shared purpose and self-regulation of emotional/mental states.
  • Drives for clarity through honesty (starting with self-honesty) and establishes reasonable boundaries. Filters decisions through a clear risk matrix, process and/or agreed to approach. Risks making decisions that could disappointment momentarily and lead to long-term benefits.
  • Creates trust based on clear agreements and consistent observable values and behavior; a yes means yes (and a no means no). Psychological and emotional authority are within the leader and shared with others.

Under Responsible: 

  • Does not take responsibility for themselves, engages in reckless behavior and tends toward externalizing blame and while internalizing credit.
  • Engages others in political distractions (often through triangles) derailing from strategic efforts, performance and business outcomes.
  • Is not taking concrete and measurable steps to solve one’s own or larger problems. Demonstrate they are not reliable through repeat behavior and negligence.
  • Does not respect boundaries and is often intrusive of others; consistently demands things at the last minute that could have been managed ahead of time.
  • Uses manipulation methods to forge pseudo trust (i.e. high warmth/low intention methods: use of charm and charisma without behavioral shifts, over promising/false promising, power struggles, playing on emotional vulnerabilities – including playing victim when held accountable, blackmail/cornering, ultimatums and threats). Psychological and emotional authority are within the leader and misused.

If you’re reviewing this and thinking – I can see my behaviors in all three… that would be an honest response. It is human to approach situations and stressful events differently. However, there is probably a consistent pattern.

The over-responsible and under-responsible will often find one another in organizational life and pair up. Please note that over-responsible people not only make up for under-responsibility, they can unconsciously create it (that is the danger). Their unreasonable standards or ways of driving themselves toward perfection may also drive the self-responsible away. 

Assumptions/beliefs that develop for those that are over responsible: 

  1. Doing is valued over being – worth comes from achievements i.e. the most recent win and acts of “heroism”; the badge of busyness.
  2. If the over responsible person doesn’t take over, then the world will collapse. If they leave the world could collapse.
  3. It is possible to be completely responsible for the happiness and well-being of another.
  4. It is ok to deny one’s own needs temporarily and sometimes indefinitely.

The over responsible are also plagued by perfectionism from self-doubt or excess guilt. This perfectionism could look like over-thinking and over-iterating.

Over Responsible Self Assessment: 

  • Are you worn out from worry about others or situations beyond your control? 
  • Do you feel you can never do enough?
  • Do you tend to burn out quickly no matter the job you are in? 
  • Do you feel if you didn’t carry the burden of responsibility then your “worlds” would collapse? 
  • Are you truly empowering your leaders (and those around you) to be future owners or keeping them in roles that work for today? 
  • What are your current approaches to boundaries? 

Leadership Practice:

If you are overly responsible, create a responsibility wheel. Take out a piece of paper and draw a circle. In the center of the circle write a focus area (this could be a project, problem, task, issue etc.), then create a list of all the people that are involved. Now divide the circle distributing a percentage to each person involved based on your perception of responsibility. What is your percentage? What is the percentage of other people? If you are 100% or 0% responsible your wheel is probably not accurate. What do you notice? What is sustainable and what isn’t? If someone you trust (or listed) looked at your circle and assessment would they agree with you? What needs to and can change?

Under Responsible Self Assessment:

Refrain from a shame spiral, there are moments when transition or stress can lead to under responsibility for all of us. And under-responsibility is the shadow of over-responsibility.

1.) Are you concerned about building trustworthy relationships in your current environment?

2.) Do you think it would be difficult to get to an outcome unless you coerced or covertly maneuvered your agenda? Do you surround yourself by “yes” people?

3.) Do you fear loss of control if you were to share power or create other leaders? Do you feel like you could be replaced? What are you really afraid of losing?

4.) Are you going through a difficulty that could be preventing you from showing up fully (i.e. death, divorce, loss, health crisis)? Do you feel the need to do anything to survive?

5.) Has this type of leadership been modeled to you? What is your approach to boundaries?

Leadership Practice:

The practice is to engage regularly in an honest self-assessment of the questions above and engage in the same leadership practice for those that are over-responsible (create the responsibility wheel). Go easy on yourself, remove blame (self and other blame) and move toward acceptance. This will prevent furthering harsh judgment or falling into a victim stance. It is easy to get caught in a shame spiral and there are moments where we are all under-responsible with important roles or tasks especially in peak period of high stress, break down and often just before we move toward greater growth. Don’t try to talk yourself out of your behavior – focus on the actions. What needs to and can change?

Honesty, clarity and ownership are key to moving toward being a self (and system) responsible leader.

© 2020 Adapted by Dr. Aman Gohal for leaders based on the clinical psych distinctions from Dr. Colmo Connor. 

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