Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

I’m Sick and Tired of Making Decisions for My Senior Colleague

Dear Crucial Skills,

I work with a senior colleague who almost always seeks my approval on decisions that are his responsibility. I have advised and supported him a few times in the past, but now he seems to have become dependent on me to confirm or validate his actions. I get the sense that he doubts himself, worries that something might go wrong, and would like to direct the blame to me in case it did. I have my responsibilities, so I get annoyed that he depends on me to make his decisions for him. I’m also afraid that if I don’t respond to his requests, he’ll let his projects stagnate and then blame their failure on me. I feel he does not want to take ownership for his responsibilities, and it’s a nuisance. What can I do?

Used and Abused

Dear Used,

Allow me to begin by sharing my reading of your question.

At some point in the past you shared your perspective with your senior colleague to help him make a decision. Since then, he has continually returned for your input, but you have grown less inclined to share it. Now you suspect he depends on you because (1) he lacks the confidence to make decisions himself and (2) he would like to blame you should a project fail. You feel annoyed and would like this to stop, but you haven’t told him so.

Can you guess where this is going?

Here’s why I think you feel stuck. First, though it’s hard to know for sure through text, I get the sense that you are blaming your colleague for your feelings. You want him to take responsibility for his duties, yet it seems you haven’t taken responsibility for your emotions. As soon as you do, you’ll see that the best way to resolve them is to take responsibility for the situation.

Second, you may have enabled him. To enable is to do for somebody else what they can and should do for themselves. Often this takes the form of supporting or permitting behavior that violates our own boundaries. The inevitable byproduct is resentment.

Third, you’ve stewed in silence.

Congratulations, you’re human!

When you think about it, it seems silly that we should get stuck in such situations, and yet all of us have found ourselves there. The good news is you can get unstuck. Here are a few ideas I hope are helpful.

Take responsibility for your feelings. You have assumed your senior colleague is the cause of your irritation when in fact he is the target of it. If you’ve read my other posts, you’ll know I harp on this idea, partly because I need to remind myself of it daily, partly because it’s central to proceeding effectively. You will not be inclined to change your perspective or your behavior unless and until you acknowledge that you are the source of your feelings.

Check for misunderstanding. There are several stories in your question. You say your colleague lacks confidence to make decisions on his own. That’s a story. You say he might like to blame you should a project fail. That’s a story. You say he doesn’t want to take responsibility for his duties. That’s a story.

Your stories may be correct, which I’ll speak to in a moment. But it may be that your colleague wants to share responsibility with you because he trusts you, values your perspective, and believes you are happy to share it. After all, if I hear you correctly, you have given him no reason to believe otherwise.

Let go of your villain stories and assume your colleague is acting in good faith—that he has no idea you’re irritated. Then, say something. You might be able to resolve this situation simply by saying, “Hey, I appreciate that you value my perspective, but I really want to focus on my own responsibilities. Would it be ok with you if I wasn’t involved in your decision-making processes?”

Share more as you proceed. You’ll notice I didn’t suggest you begin the conversation by expressing your annoyance. But if a kind request doesn’t work, you may need to do so.

I say that because I don’t want us to confuse “take responsibility for your emotions” for “it’s wrong to have negative emotions.” While it’s true that a victim, villain, or helpless story will lead to negative emotions that are preventable, it’s also true you can disapprove of someone’s behavior without telling yourself untrue stories and respectfully express your feelings related to your disapproval.

As you talk, share more of your position as needed, inviting dialogue at each step. Here’s how that might look:

  1. Make a kind request. We covered that above.
  2. Share the facts. For example, “When you wanted my help with the budget for materials, you had all the relevant information to make your decision but said you weren’t sure what to do. Why is that?” Continue to next step if needed.
  3. Share your interpretation. “Because you frequently ask for my help making decisions, I have started to think you lack confidence. What’s going on?” Continue on if needed.
  4. Share how you feel. “I have been annoyed because I feel like I’m making decisions that you should be making. Can you see where I’m coming from?”

Express and hold your boundary. If a frank conversation doesn’t resolve the issue, be politely firm. Make it clear you won’t assist, and reaffirm your position as needed. “I won’t help with that. You’ll need to seek another course of action or source of help.”

Let nature take its course. You stated that you haven’t declined your colleague’s requests even though you want to for fear that he’ll “let his projects stagnate and blame their failure on [you].”

I’ve got news: You can’t eat your cake and have it too. You can’t dictate how others show up in your world. Efforts to do so will lead you into manipulation and codependency. You can control your behavior, but not the outcomes of it. So, act with integrity, leave the rest to consequence. If your team culture is such that your colleague could blame you for his failures and get away with it, you might want to seek a position on another team or employment elsewhere, or raise your concerns with team managers.

One final thought. I have replied to your question on the assumption that your colleague may hold the motives you suggest, but I invite you to consider that you may be making a mountain of a molehill. In every role I’ve worked, my senior colleagues, managers, and bosses have sought my input on decisions at times, and I don’t think I’m unique. This is how work gets done. It’s willing assistance that makes one a valuable teammate. Withholding your input may lead to undesirable consequences of their own, regardless of whether your colleague tries to blame you for anything.

That said, I realize the line between assisting and enabling can be quite fine. Probably only you and your colleague are close enough to the situation to judge which is happening. Even more reason to have an open and honest conversation.

Good luck,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

10 thoughts on “I’m Sick and Tired of Making Decisions for My Senior Colleague”

  1. Stephanie

    I was intrigued by step 3 in your process. Asking what is going on could lead to useful insight. I have heard that people get decision fatigue and can only make a certain number of important decision in a day or time period. Thus some people in important positions are offered a limited number of choices about clothes, food and other minor things to maintain capacity for major things. If this colleague is going thru some personal problem or unseen work issue they may be reaching their limit and just need help. I have seen this with colleagues dealing with divorce, excessive care giving situations like sick children or elder care and those with superiors who are also pushing decisions down hill.

  2. Deborah Stone

    I think your Sr. Colleague appreciates your expertise. Knowing what I know now as a Sr. Leader, when I ask for advise from those below me, it is because I want the perspective from the ones doing the day to day work. It is a compliment for them to be asking you and I always value those that provide the perspective to help me make a better decision. It is not that I am incompetent it is that I want a sanity check and advise from those that are focused daily on the issue. I am working several projects and need additional advice to make the best decision.

  3. Wendy Clarahan

    Wow, what a great post! Now I’m going to apply that thinking to my marriage & parenting : ) Some things I got from this ..You can only control you. If you’re having an emotional response, why. Get curious & ask questions. What do you need to regulate your emotions. If you weren’t judging how could you be helping or resolving things. Many thanks!

  4. Vic

    I agree with the alternative ways to look at situation, especially taking responsibility oneself instead of blaming others etc.
    I have dealt with similar situations and I would take my input and meet with my senior and ask for his view how he sees it and if he has some additional input to manage it.
    After that, one can thank for the input and state what share the revised expected time/cost etc. This way you keep the senior in the loop and indirectly accountable as well.

    Hope it helps.

  5. Jennifer

    In my world, asking for advice and input is called “collaboration.” Sometimes I do ask for input because I’m not sure of myself, but usually it’s because I want to consider alternate perspectives and include the voices of those I serve and work with. I appreciate that the folks at Crucial Conversations keep reminding me to consider what story I am telling myself, and be aware that the same mental default process is taking place with my colleagues.

  6. Sharon

    This is a GREAT post. Thanks for taking the time to detail it out. I have been working on ‘my stories’. It really makes a difference when I let those goes. I have been so much calmer since I went through Crucial Conversations class. 2 4 hour sessions and they helped so much! Thank you

  7. Lisa A. Moran

    This is such a great post! Stand firm in your own truth respectfully and give others the opportunity to do the same – or not, as they choose for themselves.

  8. Marilyn Strong

    There’s another option. Perhaps the senior colleague is looking at you as a person to whom he could ‘pass the torch’ or promote and wants to see how you handle the situations.

  9. Jordan Snedaker

    Great insights. I like how you created awareness and accountability for Used and Abused.

    Thank you Ryan!

  10. Rob Stromberg

    Thank you for this discussion. I have been dealing with a Co- worker and having these emotions of anger and frustration and visibly seeing tasks not completed. I have even found myself going down the rabbit hole of vain imagination on possible outcomes because of an emotional trigger. I do understand that I am sought-after for valuable input on decisions, that my wisdom is appreciated, and that I need to take responsibility for the distractions that result from these meetings. Thanks for the advice on dealing with my emotions and reinforcing healthy boundaries. This article has helped me tremendously.

Leave a Reply