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What IS "Responsibility-Creep?"

Posted on August 5, 2011 at 2:06 AM

“Responsibility Creep” refers to the gradual shifting of responsibility from one person or group of people to another, without notification, and sometimes without the consciousness of either party.
 


When my children were small, I could not count the number of times when they would run off to play, hand me their shoes or jumper and run away shouting, “Can you hold these?” Whilst most of the time I didn’t mind taking the clothes from them, it took me a lot longer to realise that, in doing so, they also expected me to take full responsibility for them from that point until the next time they needed them.

 
If the clothes were left at the park, it was very clear to my children that I was the last one with them and that this was entirely my fault. Perhaps there was an element of truth to this too. In any case, I eventually learned the great skill of putting my hands behind my back at these times; a skill which still serves me well as I walk past time-share salespeople, spruikers and even do-gooder folks with clipboards who beg me to sign their latest petition…. (Sigh). If only it was as easy everywhere.
 
These days, you could probably venture into a staff kitchen at just about any workplace in Australia and, more often than not, you will find a little angry sign saying “PLEASE WASH YOUR OWN DISHES;” perhaps even sarcastically adding “your mother no longer works here!” Whilst some of us might find it an interesting phenomenon that one or two people tend to wash everyone else’s dishes, you can bet that not everyone finds it amusing.
 
Of course, in many workplaces responsibility creep is no laughing matter. Take the case of a manager who has been in a large firm for a number of years. As the company grows, so does the workload. New staff will inevitably look to him as the most obvious person to ask about problems. On the other hand, the company CEO will also look to this person’s years of experience and increasingly view them as the most reliable person to delegate tasks to.
 
The result of this is that, unaddressed, the manager’s workload will sooner or later become unsustainable. Whether the manager becomes jaded, begins looking for other work or has a personal or family breakdown, none of these outcomes are good for him or good for business. In this case, it is worth noticing that responsibility-creep actually represents a disincentive for competence. This is to say, it’s like the manager is being punished for being good at his job.
 
Whilst in the workplace the alternative of incompetence (or becoming poor at your job) is not always an option, the same may not be true of families. Since it’s a good deal more difficult to get fired by your family, being lousy or incompetent at particular tasks can actually prove to be a quick route to a life of ease. If a teenage son does a poor job of mowing the lawn and ruins the mower in the process, he may quickly achieve his end-goal of never being asked to do it again. Unfortunately, the same may also be true of husbands and wives around issues of household chores, budgeting or parenting.
 
Perhaps the most dangerous relationships are those in which one person becomes responsible, not only for the needs of the other, but also for the emotions of the other. If someone has ever said to you, “you made me angry” or “you made me feel guilty,” then the power to control their emotions is a lot of power to be giving you. The truth is, of course, it is not power that they are giving you, but responsibility.
 

Grown-ups usually prefer to be in control of their own emotions, and it is supposed to be only children who sulk or have tantrums if things don’t go their way. You cannot truly make another person feel anything, and it is only a person with a manipulative agenda who will try to convince you otherwise.
 
Those in abusive relationships sometimes take a long time to learn that trying to take responsibility for another person’s moods and feelings is like chasing a rainbow. However hard you may try to walk on eggshells or to be a people-pleaser, responsibility will only creep further and further into your own territory until it eventually suffocates you.
 
Roughly four-thousand years ago, a very wise king penned some valuable advice for those trapped in this, the sharp end of responsibility-creep:
 
“An abusive man must suffer the consequences of his actions.
If you rescue him, you will have to do so again.” (Proverbs 19:19)
 
Whether the responsibility-creep you are living with is related to domestic abuse, the workplace or just a careless family member, the principle contained in this proverb is profoundly helpful. It is not words alone, but cold hard consequences which bring change to situations of blurred responsibility. Nevertheless, words are an important starting point as far as identifying what is going on and how you are feeling about it.
 
If you do find yourself stuck in any kind of situation of responsibility-creep, I trust you might find the following steps helpful:
 
  1. Decide not to be a “rescuer” who picks up responsibilities for others
  2. Decide not to “rescue” the other person by your silence
    • By not talking to them about what is happening
    • By protecting their methods from being seen by others
    • By not talking to others who could be helping or supporting you
    • You cannot win a game from your powerless position within the game. You will need to step outside of the game, name and expose the game.
  3. Decide not to rescue the other person by your compliance
    • Staying in the game means that you are happy to continue playing. You cannot say something is unsustainable while you are there  busily sustaining it
    • Exposing the other person to their natural consequences may require separation, resignation, arbitration, or some other respective drastic action; one which makes it clear that you are not going to keep on playing.
  4. Focus on the long-term outcomes
    • it is not sustainable
    • Exposing the other person to their own consequences is the most authentic and kind move of all; it’s no favour to stand in the way of another person’s personal growth
    • These steps may not always bring the changes you were hoping for, but they are a far better chance than continuing to slowly sink

Categories: Codependency

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