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The Responsibility Continuum

Responsibility has several labile identities.

Key points

  • Over-responsibility encourages under-responsibility.
  • Under-responsible people are often not in charge of their own lives.
  • Sometimes, we are overly responsible for others at the expense of ourselves.
  • At other times, we may be under responsible for ourselves at the expense of others.
Yan Krukau/Pexels
Source: Yan Krukau/Pexels

Are you a responsible person? Could you even be a little over-responsible? Or, are you sometimes happy to be under-responsible? And how does being irresponsible fit into the spectrum of responsibility?

Understanding the Responsibility Continuum

The suggestion here is that "responsibility" has several labile identities. On the one hand, I can see myself as responsible no matter where I fit on the continuum of responsibility. In reality, I could really be over-responsible at times. This happens when I take on other people's responsibilities.

On the other end of the continuum, I could also, at times, be under-responsible by avoiding my tasks and letting others take up the slack. And lastly, I could actually be irresponsible by being trapped in either of the two aforementioned types of responsibility. What are the salient differences between these three types of responsibility?


“Over-responsibility can be a trauma response. You are not responsible for everyone and everything. Give yourself permission to lay down what doesn’t belong to you.” — Taylor Grismore

One of the best examples of over-responsibility is over-parenting. Children need to become teenagers and eventually adults. However, helicopter parents will invariably delay each stage of the growth process by being over-responsible for their children. One of the outcomes of over-parenting is that children delay their readiness to leave home.

In Australia, this trend of not leaving home is up 36 percent for females and 19 percent for males since 2006. Over-responsibility encourages under-responsibility. When you do 80 percent of my tasks (i.e., cooking, laundry, cleaning, etc.), I only have 20 percent of the responsibility remaining. Over-responsibility also leads to fatigue, loss of concentration, mistakes, and decreased motivation.

These factors can lead to an acceleration of symptoms of frustration, anger, and depression. The need to please and satisfy others at the expense of ourselves has benefits but also costs. One of the major costs of being over-responsible for others is the expectation of others that you will continue to be responsible for them. The over-responsible person will allow others around them to continue to be under-responsible.


“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” — Abraham Lincoln

Responsibility mirrors reality; it will find you! There can only be short-term solutions to being under-responsible. Eventually, the tax man will appear on your doorstep. Blame is the game of the under-responsible person. They will find reasons to justify not being responsible and try to put the responsibility onto others.

More importantly, under-responsible people are not even in charge of their own lives. They have given that control away to others who are more responsible. They are not able to live their own lives until they take responsibility for themselves. They choose to eschew their independence for the misguided comfort of being not responsible.


“You are responsible for you, no one owes you anything.” — Wanda Korzowski

Irresponsibility resides on either end of the over- or under-responsible continuum. Sometimes, we are overly responsible for others at the expense of ourselves. At other times, we may be under-responsible for ourselves at the expense of others. Either way, we are being irresponsible.

The results are the same. Irresponsible behavior leads to unintended negative repercussions to self and others. Roger Martin, in his book The Responsibility Virus (2003), describes the issue at the corporate level:

“The Virus infects corporations and non-profit organizations large and small, with devastating costs for the institution and its employees. The heroic leader is one who takes on more responsibility than he or she can handle, while the passive follower doesn’t take on enough responsibility. One cannot exist without the other. Heroic leaders are convinced their passive followers can’t handle responsibility so they shoulder the burden while passive followers’ sense that responsibility is being taken away and withdraw further.”

Personal Responsibility

Being a responsible person takes courage. You will hold yourself accountable for your actions and not blame others. The blame game is not in your vernacular. The rewards of taking responsibility are immense. You are your own person. You take on the good, the bad, and the ugly with no need for regrets or justification.

On the other hand, you may need to curb your urges to be a heroic leader. The over-responsibility of taking on others' tasks does not serve others well. Instead, it reinforces their passivity and under-responsibility issues. The co-dependency of over and under-responsible individuals is inefficient for both. Perhaps the roots of responsibility are mysteriously linked to the wings of independence. Time to take flight!


Martin, R. (2003). The Responsibility Virus: How Control Freaks, Shrinking Violets—And The Rest Of Us—Can Harness The Power Of True. Perseus Publishing, New York, NY, USA

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