Why Responsible People Enable Irresponsible People

BoundariesSusie was an administrative assistant in a small company that planned training sessions for different industries. She was responsible for booking the training sessions and managing the speakers' schedules. Her coworker, Jack, was responsible for the training facilities. He took the materials to the site, set up the equipment, and ordered the food. Together, Susie and Jack made the events happen.

After a few months of really liking her work, though, Susie began to lose energy. Eventually, her friend and coworker, Lynda, asked her what was wrong. Susie couldn't put her finger on the problem at first. Then she realized: The problem was Jack!

Jack had been asking Susie to "pick this up for me while you're out," or "please bring this box of materials to the workshop." Slowly, Jack was shifting his responsibilities onto Susie.

"You have to stop doing Jack's work," Lynda told Susie. "Just do your own work and don't worry about him."

"But what if things go wrong?" Susie asked.

Lynda shrugged. "Then they'll blame Jack. It's not your responsibility." "Jack will be angry with me for not helping," Susie said. "Let him," said Lynda. "His anger can't hurt you as much as his poor work habits can."

So Susie began to set limits on Jack. She told him, "I will not have time to bring the materials for you this week." And when Jack ran out of time to do things himself, Susie said, "I'm sorry that you have not done that before now, and I understand that you are in a bind. Maybe next time you will plan better. That's not my job."

Some trainers were angry that their equipment was not set up, and customers were angry that no food was provided for the break. But the boss tracked down the problem to the person who was responsible — Jack — and told him to shape up, or find another job. In the end, Susie began to like work again, and Jack began to get more responsible. All because Susie set boundaries and stuck to them.

If you are being saddled with another person's responsibilities and feel resentful, you need to take responsibility for your feelings, and realize that your unhappiness is not your coworker's fault, but your own. As in any other boundaries conflict, you first must take responsibility for yourself.

Then you must act responsibly to your coworker. Go to your coworker and explain your situation. When he asks you to do something that is not your responsibility, say no and refuse to do whatever it is that he wants you to do. If he gets angry at you for saying no, be firm about your boundaries and empathize with his anger. Don't get angry back. To fight anger with anger is to get hooked into his game. Keep your emotional distance and say, "I am sorry if this upsets you. But that job is not my responsibility. I hope you get it worked out."

If he continues to argue, tell him that you are finished discussing it; he can come and find you when he is ready to talk about something else. Do not fall into the trap of justifying why you can't do his work for him. You will be slipping into his thinking that you should do his work if you are able to, and he will try to find a way that you can. You owe no one an explanation about why you will not do something that is not your responsibility.

Many over-responsible people who work next to under-responsible people bear the consequences for their coworkers. Always covering for them, or bailing them out, they are not enjoying their work or their relationships with these people. Their lack of boundaries is hurting them, as well as keeping the other person from growing. If you are one of these people, you need to learn to set boundaries.

Sometimes, however, a coworker will genuinely need some extra help. It is perfectly legitimate to bail out a responsible coworker, or to make special concessions to a colleague who uses those concessions responsibly to get well. This is love, and good companies operate lovingly. But if one person started taking advantage of the other, that would need to stop. Covering for the other at that point would not be helpful, but would enable a bad pattern.

Favors and sacrifices are part of life. Enabling is not. Learn to tell the difference by seeing if your giving is helping the other to become better or worse. Require responsible action out of the one who is given to. If you do not see it after a season, set boundaries.

            

Ready to go deeper on this topic? Discover how to set healthy limits in any situation in The New York Times bestselling book, Boundaries.

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