There are benefits to taking responsibility but it is a balancing act. It can make you seem like a dependable, reliable and committed person and those are all positive attributes. People are going to warm to you and you’re going to get offered better opportunities in life.     

There was a study done by Harvard University on the benefits of taking responsibility. In an experiment, they had an actor go out onto a train station to complain to other commuters about the weather that day. This actor apologised for the bad weather that day and then asked if he could borrow their mobile phone. They noted how many times people agreed to lend him their mobile phone when he first started the interaction with them with an apology about the weather – It was as if he was taking responsibility for the weather even though that’s not something anyone could ever take responsibility for! They then studied what happened if he simply went up to people and asked them if he could borrow their mobile phones.

When he first approached people and apologised for the weather that day, many people agree to lend him their mobile phone. When he launched in with “can I borrow your phone?” only nine per cent of people agreed to let him borrow their mobile phone. This tells us that if you take responsibility for something (even when it’s something that you cannot possibly be responsible for!) people develop a greater sense of empathy towards you. It may be some kind of warmth or rapport that happens as a result of you being this extra responsible person. This is quite a useful trick for us to utilise because if you want people to trust you more or to warm to you quickly, then it may be a good idea to take responsibility for things even if you’re not actually responsible for them!

Something about that expression of guilt or regret, even if you’re not actually remorseful, enables people to like you more but it has its limits. There are times when taking too much responsibility might be good for others but is no longer any good for you.

Eventually, being someone who constantly takes responsibility can get in the way. In fact, it can even form the basis of OCD-type behaviours. For example, I once had a client who was a lorry driver. Once upon a time, he had forgotten something at work – he’d forgotten to close up the gates to the yard. It was a one-time error but after that, he became so paranoid about the fact that he had forgotten to close the gates, he started taking responsibility for absolutely everything. In fact, at one stage, he took responsibility for an accident that he had not even been involved in because his OCD thinking had escalated. He was taking responsibility for things that had nothing to do with him because of incidents that happened as a child. If there was a big blame culture in your family and you were the scapegoat then it can cause feelings of guilt, causing you to take responsibility for things even when it wasn’t your fault.

In part, this behaviour might happen because of the sense of wanting to keep the peace and it’s easier to take responsibility to keep everybody peaceful and happy than it is to stand your ground or to put the blame where it’s more appropriately due.

By Gemma Bailey