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.


Click to Tweet: Favors and sacrifices are part of life. Enabling is not. Learn to tell the difference.


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 and prevent unnecessary burdens from controlling your peace and energy in The New York Times bestselling book, Boundaries.


  1. Mary Gemmill says

    Thank you. This was extremely helpful to me. I have an adult son living with me for most of this year and I actually put in some clear boundaries today after reading this post.

  2. Sharon says

    What if there is no control over how much work you have since I worked for the government. It took me and another to retire before they saw that there was more and more regs requirements and no supervision because everyone was getting sick I stayed over all the time filling in for people who had kids and wanted to help since there was never enough help and rarely took vacation except for mission trips which I should not have taken. If I did have people I was taking care of could have been hurt but when it is the government you are up against and mediation fails I should have left earlier but I learned lots of skills in a variety of programs They hired 2 to replace me after I was there about 12 years. Why do so many companies and government wait till something happens before they are forced they need to hire another person even when they have limited funds but put are putting people at danger. When director is out of touch with what really is going on day to day. And communication is bad so you take initiative to improve it and reprimanded for not following command leads although they were not communicating to you with what needs to be done so you go to source to get right information only to find months later someone else in place had some role in initative when you were told you had the role. I now have some health issues from not getting lunch many times. Another friend this happened to. When you have to be precise and you are dealing with people it is difficult. I took blame for some things I could improve but I refused to be blamed for things that were not my fault one person word against another or supervisor did not see whole picture. Thankful I could leave early and not fight it in court alone since Dad worked 3 jobs and I took care f mom as an only child but I still have strong work ethic and now doing PT with private company that also says customers are first so not guaranteed a lunch. Am applying to FT since retirement is my responsibility and not someone elses. So glad I have no kids after 9 plus hours a day at work at times.

    • KM says

      I too worked for the federal government and saw exactly what you saw and lived! I decided to quit tho! It was a very hostile work environment for me; everyone fought, too much stress and work! Everyone was depressed and anxious and on meds!
      I tried to talk with them but they were all stuck in their dysfunction and couldn’t see it! I am so glad I left!
      Boundaries are amazing and I am so glad I am learning about them!

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