Avoiding the Responsibility Trap

Published: Apr 08, 2019

By: Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D.

Extremes in taking or giving responsibility can produce conflict because of the reaction they produce in others. When one person fails to take responsibility, others can resent being left with the blame or the work. When someone takes on too much responsibility (and perhaps too much of the credit), others can feel resentful or alienated; and no one likes being held responsible for something he or she didn't do.

Often such failures of giving away or taking on too much responsibility occur because of emotional needs, such as a desire to be in control or, conversely, a desire for others to take charge. Another reason is mutual misunderstandings that occur when the parties think they are behaving appropriately from their interpretation of the situation, but the other party responds to their actions in unexpected ways due to a different interpretation. The result? An uproar when people with differing views accuse each other of not being responsible or of taking too much control.

Whatever the reason for the disconnect in taking the expected or desired responsibility, when this happens, people have fallen into the Responsibility Trap. To get out, they have to align their interpretations and perspectives or bring the misunderstandings to the surface to work out a compromise. Let’s look at two examples of ways individuals fall into this trap.

What to Do When You Are Accused of Not Doing Enough

Suppose you have been in a conflict with a significant other or co-worker who blames you for not doing certain tasks. You have been getting increasingly angry at that person for bugging you about this. If it's so important to him, you think, why doesn't he do it himself? But he thinks you should do it, and so the conflict continues. 

To start the resolution process, look first at what the person is claiming about you. Could it be accurate? If not, correct any faulty presumptions, or the claims may be misplaced because of a lack of clarity about who should do what. If so, discuss roles and responsibilities openly. Alternatively, if the person's perception is accurate, consider why you might be avoiding that responsibility. Maybe you don't like doing the task, don't think it is necessary, have different ideas about the value of doing it, feel the other person isn't doing enough in other areas, or feel you should get more pay or recognition for doing more.

Whatever the reasons for the conflict over taking responsibility, the point is to understand what is causing the other person to view your actions in a certain way. Are your actions or your perceptions at fault, or are the other person's perceptions? And why are you choosing to act as you do in taking on or avoiding certain responsibilities? You need to clarify your understanding of what's going on before you can decide what is the best way for you to deal with the conflict.

When you do examine what's causing the conflict, you may decide that taking on the role the other person wants you to perform isn't such a big deal and that you're willing to give in and do more—an example of accommodating. Or you may want to stand up for what you are doing and get the other person to back down, if you feel the other person is making unfair claims on your time—an example of taking a more competitive/confrontational approach. Or perhaps you might suggest a compromise, where you take on more responsibility in this area to please the other person but ask him or her to do something you want in return. Finally, if it's worth the time and effort to discuss the situation in depth, you might be able to collaborate with the other party to find an alternative solution.

Whatever approach you ultimately decide is most suitable for this particular situation, you should base your choice on your most important goals and priorities, based on a clear appraisal of the situation.

What to Do When You Feel the Other Person Isn't Doing Enough

Conversely, if you are in a situation where you feel the other person isn't doing enough, first consider whether your own perceptions are accurate. Can you think of any reasons he or she might have to avoid this responsibility? These considerations will give you some basis for proposing or discussing possible solutions.

For example, if an associate hasn't done something, and you have been nagging her to do it, try writing down a list of possible explanations for her behavior: she doesn't like it; doesn't think she can do it well; feels you should do it yourself; or doesn't find it worthy of her time and attention. Then, consider which of these explanations is most likely in terms of her personality and past behavior.

Once you have a sense of the other person's reasons, you can tailor a discussion to address her needs as well as your own. Be sure to treat your assessment as an educated, reasoned guess, which you still have to check out to determine if it's correct. Before you do bring up the subject, consider how important this responsibility is for you. It may be that you'd rather quickly perform the action yourself. Or if you do want the other to do it, a clearer awareness of what both you and your associate need might enable you to work out an agreement for the other to do it, in return for a compromise offer from you.

What to Do if One Person Is Doing Too Much

The same analytic process can be used to consider a situation where one person is taking on too much responsibility and denying the other person power. Ask yourself whether either of you is doing too much. Consider the possible reasons causing this, such as:

  • You don't trust the other person to do it right—or he doesn't trust you.
  • You want to prove your worth by showing how much you can do—or the other person is seeking such validation.
  • One of you likes the feeling of power and control.

Which possibility sounds most plausible to you? Assess your own and the other person's likely priorities, and your answers should suggest ways of resolving the conflict.

About the Author(s)

Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D. is the founder and director of Changemakers and the author of many books, including A Survival Guide for Working with Bad Bosses. Excerpted, with permission of the publisher, from Disagreements, Disputes, and All-Out War by Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D. Copyright 2008, Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D. Published by AMACOM.