I was once formally written up as being a problem at work. I was attending a weekly meeting to discuss the development group’s work (I was outside this development group, but dependent on their work … almost a product owner by today’s terminology). Week after week all I got was a lot of status-type blah blah … no updates, no actions, little collaboration and nothing I could really take to the bank. When I asked for specifics about their work all I got was a lot of dancing. I was asking to work closer with them to improve this situation as I truly believed it would be best for everyone.

Finally in a moment of exhaustion (I was doing lots of travel), coupled with week after week of no improvement I decided the meeting was a waste of my time. So at the next occurrence I simply didn’t show up as there were others more valuable ways in which I could use my time. To save you the trouble yes there were probably better ways I could have handled this as I was a little younger and a little less wise at the time … but that’s not the point of my story. When asked why I missed the meeting I explained my case. My case was rejected. Next thing I knew I was written up for not being a responsible team player.

You can imagine how demoralizing this was for me. I was truly passionate about my work at this place, and poured my heart and soul into helping them be successful. As a part of being written up I was told I must attend these meetings. So I did … after-all what choice did I have? In my position I was told it was my responsibility to participate in such meetings. In other words, the future of my job was dependant on being responsible.

With what I know now here’s what actually happened …

  • I was told to not bring my complete self. The underlying message was my strong beliefs and values around team work and collaboration were not welcome. I was asked to leave part of me outside the work environment. I don’t believe there was any bad intent in these actions, but it’s exactly the message I was being sent.
  • I will honestly tell you I came within a snail’s breath of quitting on the spot. Being told to not bring my whole self to work offended me deeply. The only reason I stayed for the moment was I had a mortgage to pay. The problem is this left me in a mental state of obligation … complying with my managers wishes for the sake of keeping my job. From this point forward I was guarded about bringing forward my opinions on improvement or team work. Over time this built a state of resentment until eventually I left the company.

This is a great example of firing your most responsible employee. In the name of trying to make me a responsible team player, he used the word responsible like a big stick. What happened is my manager actually put me in a state of obligation.  In obligation there is only compliance and movement towards protecting ourselves. I can tell you from experience staying in this place left me feeling very conflicted and unhappy.

Being in a position of obligation only proves you’re human, and does not make you wrong or broken. However, what I know for sure is real actions, and real improvement are not possible if you dwell in this place of obligation. Real actions and real growth are only possible from a place of true responsibility.

So back to my title. It might feel a little like the dilemma of how to say “tomato”. However in this case there’s an important distinction between the words responsibility and obligation.

  • What would have been possible if my manager explored what was actually underlying my actions rather than just passing judgement and telling me I need to be responsible? Even if my actions weren’t the wisest I was sending a message that went unheard.
  • Imagine how much less stress is possible if parents would explain the value of their children helping around the house rather than just saying “if you want your allowance vacuum the house!”  (and yes I used to take this approach with my kids and can see the problem)
  • Imagine how much better you would feel if when asked for a favour by a friend you wanted to do it rather than thinking you needed to do it to be considered a friend.

I believe we are all leaders in at least some part of your life. Given this consider where are you putting those you lead in obligation. It’s a lot less stressful to allow them to truly be responsible.

My hope for the world is we stop using the word responsibility like a big stick.


Building Great Teams

Building Great Teams

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