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What are You Actually Responsible For?

Welcome to episode 90 of My Circus, My Monkeys. In the last episode, the question I posed is “where is your energy going?” Why? Because your energy is your most valuable resource and if it’s not being directed at the right things, you’re literally wasting it. This week’s question is “what are you responsible for?” And what I really mean is what are you actually responsible for vs all the things you add to your plate that really belong to other people. If you feel the weight of too many responsibilities, you’ll want to listen to this episode.

Before we start dissecting what you’re responsible for, let’s explore this idea of responsibility itself. I’m no wordologist, so I want to keep it simple. Boiled down to a nutshell – wait, is that even a phrase? In a nutshell, being responsible is an obligation or duty to do something. If you fulfill said obligation then you are a responsible person. Now those are the common definitions, but there’s also the Gallup Talent Theme of Responsibility. The two-sentence summary of the Responsibility Talent Theme is “People exceptionally talented in the Responsibility theme take psychological ownership of what they say they will do. They are committed to stable values such as honesty and loyalty.”

Now even if you don’t have the Talent Theme, you can absolutely be a responsible person. All it takes is for you to do the things you say you will, including things like what’s listed in your job description. The folks with the Talent Theme Responsibility are just really good at embracing that obligation and making it happen. That means that if someone with Responsibility says they’ll do something, they HAVE to do it because they said they would. They now psychologically own that thing and MUST make it happen.

Now back to energy for a hot second. You have a limited amount of energy every day. And if you don’t have the right systems in place, you can very easily waste it on things that aren’t helping you get where you want to go. If your current system or habits involve you taking on things outside the scope of your responsibility, you need to realize that everything you take on that is not your responsibility takes you away from accomplishing your goals and perhaps even being aligned with your values.

Part of the problem might very well be that you’re not clear on what your goals and values are. If you don’t know what your goals or values are, it’s incredibly easy to get distracted by other things. So let’s talk about your goals. What do you want/need to accomplish at work? What do you want/need to accomplish at home? What do you want/need to accomplish for you? And by accomplish, I don’t necessarily mean a list of tasks. Sure, maybe you want to get retention up 2% or increase student’s success rates with ____. But what about leaving work on time so you can see your kid’s baseball games; having enough energy to spend on your hobbies; or find a new job so you can do all of these and more.

And think about the values that go along with those goals. If family is something you value, how to all these extra responsibilities impact your ability to be present with your family? Perhaps giving back to the community is a value of yours. You might feel like doing additional things at work fulfills that value, but it might be keeping you from giving back to the community in ways you feel passionate about. There are plenty of values that are congruent with doing quality work at work, but is there a point when they overshadow the other values you have?

Each responsibility you take on requires energy to fulfill it. Now, if doing _____ responsibility helps you achieve your goal and is congruent with your values, then it might very well be a good use of that energy.

Note - Be sure to check out other episodes to make sure you’re staying in your Strengths Zone to achieve those goals.

But all too often folks – especially folks with the Responsibility Talent Theme – take on responsibilities that they are not actually responsible for. Let me say that again. There is an above average chance that some of the things on your plate do not belong to you. Some may have been given to you by other people, but even when you account for those there are still far too many that you have chosen for yourself. And when that happens, you suddenly have a ton of extra stuff on your plate that drains your energy, increases your stress, and makes it more difficult for you to achieve your goals.

Let me give you an example from my own life. Full disclosure, I don’t have Responsibility the Talent Theme, but I think that will help you understand that this happens to all of us. My dad wanted to sell his car. Neither of my parents are active online, so they asked if I would post it on Facebook. I’d listed things for them before and it wasn’t much trouble, so I was happy to help. However, that’s not what happened this time. The demand for used cars was SO high, I immediately got hit with dozens of messages asking about it. At first, I was surprised, but figured he’d sell it quickly. But as with many used cars there were some issues and the people with whom I’d set up appointments would leave without buying. This whole thing very quickly started stressing me out. I was spending so much energy on the car it was hard to focus on the things I needed to do for the business. People kept messaging me – often repeatedly if I didn’t get back to them immediately. I was trying to balance scheduling with getting back to folks and doing my own stuff. Finally, I was like WTF?!? How did this become my responsibility? I was angry, so I started giving folks my dad’s number to cut me out of the process as much as possible.

Well, here’s the thing. I got myself all worked up and spent a load of time and energy on it, but it was never actually my responsibility to begin with. I just assumed what my role should be and took it on. When I announced, I was just going to start giving people their number, their response was, “okay, sounds good.” At first, that made me angry too. Lol. But then I realized all they’d asked me to do was post it. I took on a bunch of extra stuff myself. We’ll talk about why I did this in a minute.

But first, let’s do a work example. I have a friend I used to work with. We were in different departments but it was a small campus, so we were often in committees together. I can’t tell you how many meetings we were in where my friend volunteered for more work, even though she was already pretty maxed out. In all of these situations, the group had either decided it would be beneficial to do something but no one claimed it right away OR the group kept going round and round about what to do. In the first scenario, she’d volunteer to do that thing. In the second scenario, she’d announce what the group should do AND volunteer to do it. Sometimes I could even count down to when she’d take over and decide to take it on herself. There were a few times when it did make sense for her to take on something because it fell within the scope of her department, but that’s not what drove her decisions.

Maybe these examples have reminded you of times you took on things that maybe weren’t really your responsibility…at least not directly. So why do we do this? Why would someone voluntarily take on something extra when they’re already so stressed and overwhelmed? If you’d asked my friend, she’d say she didn’t volunteer at all but rather she did what was necessary for the students. If you asked me before I got overwhelmed and pissed off, I would have said it was easier because my dad didn’t have access to Facebook. And even if he did it would require me explaining Facebook to him. Part of the problem is most of us were never taught to set appropriate boundaries. When that happens, the lines between what’s my responsibility and what’s yours suddenly becomes blurred.

And what’s the cost of all this? For you, it means more things to do that distract you from your own goals and objectives. All those things drain your energy so you can’t apply it where you most need it. It also means more stress for you and probably your team. Things are going to be pushed back. The time and energy you could be using to support and develop your team is now gone. Possibly some of the things you volunteered for are going to fall on your team, as well.

The other cost is that you keep others from living up to their responsibilities and prevent meaningful change from happening. If you do ___ either because Suzie is dropping the ball or because there’s a new initiative that hadn’t previously been factored into anyone’s job, you’ve both distorted the data AND removed any urgency for administration to fix real the problem whether it be…

  • Hiring a new person

  • Fixing dysfunctional systems

  • Reorganizing staff or departments

  • Purchasing new software

  • Hold someone accountable and even firing someone

When you’re assessing what you’re responsible for, the question is never “does this need to get done?” Lots of things need to get done but that doesn’t make it your responsibility. The question also isn’t “will this impact me if it’s not done?” For example, say admissions is always behind on applications, so that makes it difficult for your folks to get new students folks registered in time for classes.

Could you just decide to either help get the applications processed or even take over the process altogether? Sure. And it would solve that particular problem. But it also creates new problems, right? Who’s going to do all of your work now that you’re doing their work?

What’s that? No one? You’re just going to have to work harder and longer? Exactly my point.

That harder and longer is going to eventually wear you down, but even before that it’s going to impact the quality of your work. I’ve talked with many folks in coaching and suggested they do less. One of the things they almost always say is, “I just can’t not give 100%.” My response is always, “and what’s the quality of your 100% right now?” Doing a reasonable amount of work means valuing quality over quantity.

And just to be clear this means the quality of your decisions, too. Bad decisions almost always mean more work later for you and your team, if not other people on campus.

But what about the students?!? They are the ones who will suffer if this doesn’t get done! Might they be inconvenienced? Sure. Might they complain and have their parents call and complain? Yep. Might they even decide to withdraw from your institution? Yes, some might.

But here’s the thing. When you don’t let other people or systems fail, there’s nothing to let administrators know there’s a problem. Students complaining, parents complaining, and low retention numbers are what moves change quickly.

And also to be clear, you telling people there’s a problem or that you’re exhausted and can’t keep doing this doesn’t have the same impact. Why? Because students are now getting what they need at your expense. Even if your supervisor thinks your amazing and genuinely wants to help, you managing to do everything just proves to those higher up that well, you CAN do everything. Until they get your two weeks’ notice on their desk, they’re not going to work very fast - if at all, to resolve the problem. The squeaky wheel gets the grease and unfortunately students, parents, and the bottom line are the loudest squeakers.

Let things and people and other departments fail. Stop volunteering. The success and wellness of every student cannot possibly your responsibility. As they say, it takes a village. And in this particular case, the village is the entire college or university. Yes, do your part and do it well. But for you to do your part well, you can’t divert your energy to other things. And if other parts of the village aren’t working correctly, they need to be fixed so the entire organization functions properly.

Now might you temporarily pitch in for a short period of time? Sure, but only if there’s a firm deadline and solution in place. Say someone quits in your department. Will you and the team have to cover until someone else is hired? Yes. But what if you’re told they can’t get replaced. Should you keep doing all of their work indefinitely? Only if you want to guarantee they won’t get replaced. If you and your team get everything done with one less person, why the BLEEP would they bother hiring someone else?

As much as I’d love to be wrong. Right now, most institutions care about you in terms of your output, not your well-being. Even well-meaning supervisor who genuinely are trying to help you get the support you need, may not be able to because you’ve greased the squeaky wheel with your and possibly your teams’ blood, sweat, and tears.

Now many of you might still be thinking, I hear what you’re saying, Anne, but that’s a no for me. I still believe I should be a team player and pitch in to make sure everything necessary gets done for any student who crossed my path, literally and figuratively. And/or, that’s a no for me because if I don’t do these things I’ll get fired/the institution will lose students and I’ll get laid off.

I’d say in both of those situations you probably have stories and beliefs that aren’t working for you - unless you overwhelming amounts of work align with your goals and values. Because saying yes to things that aren’t actually your responsibility will just mean you get more and more work. It’s a myth that people will see how hard you’re working and finally reward you for it. At least not in proportion to the amount of work you’re doing.

So, as you’re thinking about all the things you have on your plate, start going through and asking yourself, is this really my responsibility or did I take it on for another reason. Maybe because you were unclear about your own goals or values? Maybe you lacked healthy boundaries? Maybe you have stories that are getting in your way? Maybe your talents are showing up as weaknesses. Then go back and address the core issue so it doesn’t happen again. Become clear on your goals and values. Set healthy boundaries. Upgrade your stories. Better manage your talents. Then, if possible, get rid of all the things you volunteered for that belong to someone else, even if you don’t know exactly who that someone else is.

And finally, create a system for future situations that gives you time to think about whether you should volunteer for something or agree to a request. Maybe it’s something like you always take at least an hour before deciding whether or not to volunteer for anything. During that time ask yourself, am I really responsible for ____? If no, let it go. If you say yes or well sort of, think about your goals and values. Does this responsibility align with them, or might it actually get in the way? Now, even if you say no, you might still feel guilty or an impulse to say yes anyway. If that’s the case, think about the story in your head that’s making you feel that way. Now think of an alternative story that will allow you to turn down the request or keep you from volunteering.

If you want to learn more about how to reduce your stress, maximize your energy, improve your systems, and more, join us this summer for the Supervisor Strengths Institute. Alicia and I are particularly proud of the Institute. It’s an eight-week program that combines online learning with group and individual coaching to really support supervisors of all levels become more effective and less stressed. We start on May 31st with our first group call. The Institute runs until July 26th, so just in time for you to prep for the fall semester. Don’t let next year be a repeat of this one.

You can get more information and register at

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