How to tell responsibility from people pleasing

My fiancé just wrote a great article about coding, responsibility, and how software development is mostly about managing egos of everyone involved. This made me think about my own relationship with responsibility, which has been so far quite complicated and confusing.

I’m a highly sensitive person and an emotional sponge. Noticing other people’s emotions and absorbing them as my own comes to me very naturally. If someone around is feeling the slightest bit uncomfortable, I become uncomfortable in result, and feel responsible for dissolving that tension. In turn, I tend to feel responsible for everything and everyone.

Feeling personally responsible for everyone’s problems is great…

… for someone working in customer support. It makes me highly motivated to actually get the issue solved. If I didn’t feel responsible, I wouldn’t probably spend that much time exorcising obscure error codes from an invoicing integration. Many of the problems I work on are fun and satisfying to solve, but invoicing or tax in the US are certainly not among them.

But responsibility goes beyond just working diligently on things that are not entirely fun. It makes me explore new and creative ways of achieving the seemingly impossible. Rather than use our support policy as an excuse not to do something, I’ll reevaluate how its spirit rather than letter may apply in that particular situation. Rather than send a ticket away to a different department, I’ll dig deep into how their and our module cooperate together, and where a possible clash may occur.

…until it’s no longer great.

Every now and then there are more problems to solve than we can possibly handle in reasonable time. Some people get energized by this, for me it’s the opposite. My motivation and productivity plunge immediately. If at the end of the day people will still be shouting and upset, why even bother? There are days when I don’t feel like getting out of bed at all, knowing things at work will be broken, and I won’t be able to fix them on the spot.

My team lead often tells me I’m feeling responsible for too many things at once. He reminds me that the world isn’t going to collapse without me holding it together, and the things that are going to collapse are perhaps not really worth preserving. He says letting something fall apart is a great opportunity for other people to step in and build a better structure in its place. I used to rebel against it, thinking it’s a cold and heartless approach. But the more we talk about it, the better I see that my own motivation to go above and beyond wasn’t always as pure and sincere as I’d want it to be.

I want to make everyone feel good, so that I can feel good.

This isn’t a bad thing on its own, the world could certainly use some more harmony and people feeling good about themselves. In my case however, it seems to lead to “I won’t be able to feel good until everyone around also feels good.” and “I should only do things that make everyone around feel good”. These beliefs are not serving me well, and actually reduce my capability to fix things.

In challenging times, it’s especially important for someone to come and take responsibility. Even if it’s not possible to make everyone happy now, there are lessons to be learned and implemented to make the future better. Oddly enough, when things get challenging I find it especially difficult to make any meaningful contribution. It’s embarrassing to admit how often I’ve put off important, long-term strategic thinking because I got pulled into a torrent of busywork.

Strategic decisions always involve a tradeoff of some sort, and a tradeoff always comes with the risk of making someone upset. As long as my taking responsibility is rooted in a desire to make everybody feel good, I’ll back away from any situation where challenging emotions might arise in me or someone else, which means all situations that require taking actual responsibility. In result, I might spend a lifetime “sacrificing” myself for others while giving up the power to actually help them.

Perhaps true responsibility and true leadership is being comfortable with making someone upset.

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