How Too Much Help Actually Hurts

I recently attended a local volunteer meeting. Led by a very dedicated and capable volunteer, the 60-minute meeting consisted almost exclusively of him giving updates on various agenda items. Others attending then commented or responded to his questions. If someone would have been watching, but not listening, it might have appeared to be a graduate seminar in a professor's home. It was a decidedly one-sided conversation, and not one I would feel the need to participate in again.

Here's the problem, a common one in a lot of organizations, particularly at the local volunteer level. While everyone attending this meeting cares deeply and is willing to get involved, one individual drives the momentum and effort. It's not sustainable. At some point he will burn out and a leadership vacuum might emerge. And by holding too much of the responsibility for what gets done, he limits the group's productivity and impedes others' initiative. He's not being dictatorial, but his over-responsibility creates others' under-responsibility, a dynamic that Roger Martin explored in his excellent book, The Responsibility Virus.

Maintaining the right balance of responsibility between leaders and followers or contributors requires great attention and vigilance. If the leadership takes too little responsibility, others can flounder, use resources unproductively, or fail to follow-through appropriately. If the leadership takes on too much responsibility, others might think their ideas and assistance is not needed or allow the leadership to do all the work.

People with drive and commitment often find themselves promoted to (or selected for) positions of leadership. But they have a predisposition to "doer-ship." That is, their greatest gift is getting things done. Too bad they now are in a position that has helping others get things done as one of its primary responsibilities. If you find yourself in meetings where all eyes and ears are focused on one individual (maybe it's you!), it might be worth thinking about recalibrating the balance of responsibility.