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Escaping Over-Responsibility

A Seven-Step Process for Escaping Over-Responsibility

How can a person trapped in over-responsibility escape before the eventual crash? The over-responsible person is typically oblivious to the downsides of their stance. They feel invincible, able to take on their job and the jobs of others. They have firmly planted in their minds the traditional definition of the heroic leader, and they are playing it to the hilt. While those mired in under-responsibility feel a strong sense of shame at being in a position that is widely denigrated, those trapped in over-responsibility feel a sense of nobility, as well as noblesse oblige. A seven-step process can be used to take the series of baby steps necessary to escape over-responsibility.

1) Visualize the End Result of the Path You’re Traveling

Until the very end, the over-responsible person feels capable of overcoming all presenting challenges so is disinclined to change. They err on the side of over-responsibility precisely because they think that they are more capable than anyone else. And the behavior of others in the face of their over-responsibility reinforces the belief that they are the only one who can save the day.

The first step is to visualize the logical extension of this behavior. Play out the steps well into the future. Imagine your under-responsible partner(s) taking on incrementally less and less. Imagine yourself seizing more responsibility at each and every turn. Imagine the psychological toll as you and your partner(s) develop increasing contempt for one another. You will see them as increasingly pathetic and they will see you as increasingly domineering.

Get concrete. Focus on the increase in workload that you will be forced to bear. Look at all the tasks you’ve taken on as you’ve declared your partner(s) to be incapable or incompetent.

Add up these tasks and identify the time period over which you’ve assumed them—say the past three years. Construct in your mind an equal number of added tasks/responsibilities to be added over the next three years. Visualize what your life will be like in another three years with these additional tasks stacked on top of the current load. Then imagine another three years and another load, and then another three.

If you can visualize the load as being heavier than any one person can bear, even someone with your impressive skills and capacity, you will become motivated to consider an alternative scenario. You will recognize that, whatever the danger you associate with trying to redistribute the burden with under-responsible partners in whom you have little trust, it pales beside the danger of the path you see before you otherwise.

2) Reframe the Under-Responsible Party

Following the visualization, turn your focus to the under-responsible party or parties. At this point, the parties appear weak, pathetic, and perhaps lazy. In order to convert them into partners you can see worthy of responsibility, you must conduct a Frame Experiment in which you cast them in a more productive light.

Again, the way to reframe them is to make sense out of their pattern of actions. They are unlikely to be pathetic and weak because they love being pathetic and weak. In fact, they have their strengths. A more sensible explanation for their pathetic and weak attitudes and behaviors is as a reaction to your behaviors. As you advanced, the others retreated. And as they retreat and you advance, they try to make sense out of your behavior, which leads them to guess that you are overbearing, domineering, and untrusting.

The Frame Experiment to help you see the existing frame, which would look approximately like this:



Burdened by and trapped in over-responsibility


Weak, pathetic, requiring me to carry them


Soldier on heroically

The new frame would look approximately like this:



Trapped in over-responsibility in substantial part of my own making


Mired in under-responsibility, in part because of Self; feeling helpless to change anything; not happy with own actions/attitude


Attempt to work with Other to start toward a more productive sharing of responsibilities

This is a far better frame for conducting a more productive conversation with your under-responsible counterpart(s).

3) Pick a Burning Issue on Which You Want to Work

As with the process for under-responsibility, choose an issue of over-responsibility that is bugging you, but not the toughest one. This is a more difficult issue for the over-responsible hero, who tends to go directly toward the toughest issue simply because the challenge seems most heroic.

So the advice here is to resist being over-responsible in picking an issue to begin tackling over-responsibility. Pick an issue that gives the under-responsible party or parties a chance to prove that they can and will help you overcome your self-defeating tendencies.

If you can’t maintain a positive frame, then you can pick an easier issue with less emotion, less pain, and fewer negative attributions. The goal is to arrest the spiral that leaves you trapped in over-responsibility not eliminate the over-responsibility in one fell swoop. Getting a good start to build momentum is the critical thing.

4) Engage in a Responsibility Ladder Conversation

Equipped with the Frame Experiment, you can engage your under-responsible counterpart in a conversation, the goal of which is to mutually agree on a redistribution of responsibility on your issue of choice. The Responsibility Ladder is the tool you can use to structure the conversation.

Begin the conversation by indicating that you feel that you’re seizing too much responsibility and that is not helpful to your colleagues or you. It is critical to avoid making others feel blamed for the current state. Very likely, they already feel uncomfortable about their under-responsibility. If you trigger further feelings of embarrassment at the start of this conversation, the others are likely to engage in evasive action to protect their governing values. Throughout the conversation, start with descriptions of your over-responsibility. Make clear that you are sharing responsibility for the problem.

Provide examples to illustrate ways in which you have jumped too quickly in taking on responsibility in situations where you could have left more of it in their hands. Continue by describing the way in which this situation makes sense, even though not optimal or productive. It’s important to share the blame for the current state of affairs. The under-responsible party will be highly sensitive to being blamed for something they’re powerless to change, whether that feeling is well grounded or not.

Next indicate your desire to change the dynamic for everyone’s sake. Make it very clear that you need their help in doing so. Describe the way in which the dynamic is hurting you both, starting with you but including them.

You can then use the Responsibility Ladder to design a way for you to start your downward migration in responsibility. You should pick a task on which you’re operating at too high a rung on the ladder and the other person too low, and suggest balancing the responsibility.

5) Use the Choice Structuring Tool to Gain Comfort

Again, you can use the Choice Structuring Tool to become comfortable with the new division of responsibilities and to assess performance on the new responsibilities by exploring the underlying assumptions. The key question is: What would we have to believe for the new split of responsibilities to be appropriate from the perspective of both parties?

Were they to come to the conclusion that they each believed their conditions to hold, they could move forward confidently on the new split of responsibility. However, if they harbored any doubts, they could jointly design tests to help overcome those doubts.

If they run the controlled test, they need to make the results of these tests subject to the joint assessment of the two, not subject only to private testing in the mind of either. In order for the under-responsible member of the pair to take what would feel to be a risky and dangerous step upward in responsibility, the over-responsible member has to recognize the fear and ensure that they are modeling a more productive behavior with their actions. In particular, they need to make their reasoning very clear, using the Choice

Structuring Process, and to make their actions open to public testing and critique. If the over-responsible party doesn’t do so, it is very unlikely that the under-responsible party will do so. And that is likely to thwart any forward progress.

6) Do It and Reflect

In letting go a bit, the over-responsible partner will feel some level of fear that he’s courting failure. But the under-responsible party will feel as much fear or more. It’s important for the over-responsible members to avoid hovering like a vulture, waiting for the first chance to swoop in and grab back the responsibility they’ve surrendered. If they do, the under-responsible parties will question the commitment of the Other to change their behavior.

Each partner needs to reflect on his own performance as he takes on the new level of responsibility. This dialogue will build confidence in both parties that they can communicate with each other. They begin to see each other as part of the solution, not part of the problem. This will build a sense of closeness and collaboration, which itself will provide a resistance against the Responsibility Virus.

7) Repeat the Above Six Steps Over and Over

The final step is to repeat the previous six steps over and over until you no longer feel trapped in over-responsibility. In due course, he may feel he has achieved a balance in which he does not see himself heading toward a crash.

Working on one small issue of over-responsibility will not eradicate the Responsibility Virus, but the hope is that the results of the initial baby step out of the trap will give you sufficient confidence to pursue another step and another and another. At a minimum, it will arrest the downward spiral, which in turn should provide the confidence necessary to repeat the process until you have matched responsibilities to capabilities in your life.


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