The Responsibility Curse: An Intimate Discussion Yields True Wisdom
“I was born with a strong responsibility muscle”, was the phrase used by a guest at DRIVEN’s exclusive Real Talk, Real Food dinner table discussion in September 2015, when she was asked about her personal values. Everyone around the dinner table nodded. We understood. Of course we did. You’re likely nodding your head right now as well. Most ambitious, successful professionals share this trait— a trait which, ironically, doesn’t always serve us well, particularly if we are women in business.
The Inadvertent Self-Sabotage
“You acted like you never needed anything”, was an example of what the same woman described her parents as saying when she asked why they never offered her any help over the years. This, too, drew empathy. It turns out that when we are highly-responsible, known by others to take things upon ourselves, we may end up feeling neglected over time. Parents (and bosses) tend to invest their energy elsewhere because they assume we’ve “got it covered”. Asking for help, input, guidance and feedback may not come naturally to us, but we must begin to learn these traits in order to reach our full potential.
During the discussion, that same woman made a brilliant analogy about responsible types: A shelf is ready to fall over and all of the glasses are going to smash to the ground. You assume that it will end in disaster unless YOU step in and catch everything. As more agreeable nods were shared at the table, she reflected on her former self by adding, “I created a vacuum so no one else could get in.” But with practice, a couple of stumbles, and many lessons learned, she started to transform her ways and allow herself to grow. In turn, her subordinates began to grow, transforming their collaborative efforts into successful teamwork.
The natural first step in escaping the responsibility vacuum is to learn to delegate. But as we know, that may be easier said than done. As another discussion participant learned when she began leading teams, “We need to trust, and to accept that our way isn’t the only correct way”. The second step is to create an environment where others on the team feel safe and optimistic about stepping up. Another dinner participant did this by fessing up and welcoming inclusion. She verbalized to everyone on her team, “I will speak as if I know exactly what’s going on all the time….it’s just my opinion”. This was a cue to subordinates that they had permission to openly contribute.
In navigating these two steps, we must keep in mind that when we surrender absolute control over a project, there will inevitably be someone who doesn’t do what they’re supposed to. “Expect what you inspect” is a lesson that had been learned long ago by this group. We discussed this point, concluding that we need to better communicate our expectations, delegate clearly, trust the people we work with, manage around problem areas, and accept that “Although it’s not the way I would have done it, it’s done and it was done well.”
The other point we all agreed upon was that humor is a valuable trait. Interestingly, this only becomes fully realized with maturity. For example, my mother used to say that I was “four, going on 40”. I was ALWAYS a serious kid. As a result, I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders, and that lead to unnecessary self-loathing. I could never live up to my own expectations, and I was miserable. Letting go and learning to laugh at myself in my adulthood was the strongest solution to my predicament, and is an essential skill for all responsible people to acquire. A little humor and some self-compassion are the equation for a healthy career and emotional life. The rewards are eternal contentment and resiliency, and who could argue against those?