The Line Between Responsibility and Over-Responsibility

Are your over-responsible for what happens around you or do you take the exact right amount of responsibility? Where is the line and how do you measure what is the appropriate level of responsibility to take in any leadership or life situation?

Leadership involves a series of complex explicit and tacit rules about our responsibilities towards ourselves and to others. When we are able to have healthy distinctions between what we are responsible for and what we are not, we can feel empowered and bring the best of our emotional resources to the fore in challenging situations.

These 2 distinctions about responsibility help us to be clear about our boundaries so we stay sane and unstressed.

Being Responsible FOR Our Powers of Response.
Our thoughts and feelings are our own. When we truly believe this, what follows is we can accept that how we respond to people through our speech and behavior are also completely within our sphere of responsibility. This is at the core of showing up as an empowered individual in the world, owning our responses and feeling more at choice about how we respond.

The disempowering way of showing up is when we respond with thoughts, feelings and statements such as “you made me feel angry/sad/disappointed” or “you made me do that”. This suggests we have given away our powers of response to someone who is seemingly making us respond in ways beyond our control.

Being Responsible TO others whom we are in relationship with.
We have responsibilities to the people with whom we are in relationship with, including our loved ones, colleagues, managers, friends and people within our communities. These responsibilities are governed by the agreements, norms and conditions that we have set up either explicitly or tacitly with each other. Say for example our intention is to maintain good healthy relationships with our colleagues, then we would probably do all of the things that are congruent with maintaining and honoring those relationships.

Lisa’s Leadership Dilemma

A client, Lisa, recently told me her board decided to close down a business operation she leads, which will result in the unemployment of 50 people, including herself. She is sinking emotionally under the burden of being responsible for the feelings of her team members, their futures and their financial situations.

Supporting Lisa through her biggest leadership challenge began with her becoming clear about what she was responsible for and what she was not and drawing upon the two distinctions above.

We drew a line and placed on one side of the line Lisa’s behaviours, thoughts, feelings and speech, and on the other side of the line she listed the perceived behaviors, thoughts, feelings and speech that would come from her team members. Looking at her side of the line she declared she was willing and able to hold herself accountable for being the most empathic leader she could be, which included acknowledging and accepting the emotional impact and not just wearing the unemotional mask of “professional” Lisa.

She also committed to being the best communicator – sharing transparently with her team the reasons for the closure, the expected timeframes and the myriad of details that would give people some degree of certainty in a time where they may feel enormous uncertainty. We double-checked that these were all within Lisa’s sphere of responsibility and were aligned with what she deemed a good leader and human being would do.

Then Lisa looked at the other side of the line that listed the feelings, thoughts, behaviours and speech of the team members. Her immediate response was to worry about how they would react to the news of the closure and how
ill-equipped they were to cope with the fallout around that. In helping Lisa to find her healthy boundary for supporting people, versus taking responsibility for them, she came to the belief that while she was not responsible for their reactions or how they managed themselves through the transition, she felt that how she behaved as a leader would have an influence on them. This was something else that she felt comfortable holding herself accountable for, being the best role model/leader she could be in her relationships with her team.

When we allow others to take care of themselves and their part of the relationship, and we do the same for our part, we do not treat them as helpless. We then establish healthy boundaries between our role and others’ roles where all parties can feel empowered.


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