After reaching a certain level of seniority, it’s expected that a worker can self-direct in service of the organizational goals.

This creates a situation that can be difficult to navigate: is it really self-direction if the organization decides what are the “right” and “wrong” choices in the end?

Today, we will see how to approach this in practice.

Operating principles

There is really a balance to reach between:

  • Agency, which the right and ability of individuals to make their own choices and effect their own decisions.

    For example, any engineer can look at some area of their project for which they are not personally responsible, and make a proposal to change it for a reason they find important. Agency enables every engineer to do that.

  • Responsibility, which is the set of things the individual is expected to do in certain circumstances.

    For example, any engineer is expected to actually spend effort to solve a problem they have promised to solve earlier, or approach a manager to make alternate arrangements. Responsibility is the “agreement” to do the work.

    Another example of responsibility is the obligation to behave generally in accordance with the company’s values and our engineering values.

A well-functional organization should supports agency for every engineer, and encourage every engineer to seek additional responsibility over time, in accordance to their career goals and personal interests.

Note that there is no expectation that, in the beginning, individuals do anything other than fulfill their responsibilities as agreed upon with their team and manager. Of course, they are welcome to exercise agency as well, if they have the ability and desire, but this is not required and it is commonly assumed both will be learned and grow with time.

(See Tech Career Progression for Beginners for the process that enables that development.)

Maintaining balance: agency and responsibility

A balance exists between agency and responsibility: one can take their own decisions, but there is also “work to be done” (responsibilities).

How to avoid conflict between the two?

In a military organization, individuals have very little agency, and responsibility is directed from supervisors. In a traditional workplace, the employer delineates the scope of agency and responsibility ahead of time, in the job description or labor agreement.

A well-run engineering organization in a tech company is special in that the individual is usually expected to navigate this balance themselves (at least after some level of seniority):

  • there is a basic set of responsibilities that comes with the initial work agreement:

    for engineers, to be generally agreeable to co-workers and work to solve problems given to them, in a timely manner.

  • there is a basic promise of agency that comes from the engineering culture:

    everyone is given a voice and there should be an organizational promise this voice will be listened to.

  • beyond that, individuals are expected to develop further, at their own speed:

    • to exercise additional agency, to effect changes around them—both in the product and in the organization,
    • to develop a sense of responsibility and/or take additional responsibility.

Making individuals own the navigation of balancing agency and responsibility can be intimidating, especially to novice or junior engineers.

Navigating this balance is a skill, too, and needs to be learned. Everyone has been a beginner at it.

“What should I care about?”

It is one thing to know that one should develop agency or responsibility, but another to know in which direction.

That’s all right!

You are not expected to know this from the get-go. The following helps:

  • Pay attention to organizational pain points or your co-workers struggling.

    Both are a sign that something may need to be changed. Maybe you can be the agent of that change.

    An organization may promote the following enginering values:

    • Question with respect and curiosity over skepticism.
    • Workaround today and fix next month over silence today and fix next week.
  • Ask for recommendations to co-workers or a manager: “what are current problems that nobody seems to be working on?”

    Be explicit: “not only technical problems; I am also curious about organizational problems, or struggles with knowledge, productivity, etc.”

    An organization may promote the following enginering value: explicit over implicit, in communication

If you passively wait for a co-worker or supervisor to assign work to you, they may eventually decide to do so, but they will experience that as a loss: by doing so, you are denying yourself agency and denying your co-worker the pleasure to work with someone with agency.

However it is absolutely OK to say “I don’t know what I should care about — do you have any suggestions?” This is an active request for mentoring and will bring you to places.

As engineers become more senior, there is more autonomy expected. But there is no stigma to a junior engineer just out of college needing to have their work more prescribed.

“I can’t reasonably do X while also doing Y. Now what?”

There will be moments where the weight of responsibility will make you feel you are losing your agency. For example, there may be a lot of bugs that need fixing and you may feel you have too little time available for your latest area of interest.

At other times, the opposite will happen: your choice to allocate your time on matters important to you are impeding on your ability to fulfill the responsibilities that the rest of the org expects of you.

How to restore balance when balance has been disrupted?

There are three phases for this:

  • you becoming aware that the balance has been disrupted. This is the most difficult step, see below for more.
  • declare explicitly that the balance has been disrupted and that you wish something to change. Also, see below.
  • take action in collaboration with your co-workers and your manager to ensure a restorative change takes place. This is not too difficult but not trivial either, see below.

Noticing imbalance

Sometimes, the signal for imbalance will be clear: you may notice you have not been able time-wise to work on your area of interest for more than a week or two, or a manager may have signaled to you that you’re slipping on some responsibilities.

Oftentimes, the signal is more diffuse. You should pay special attention to the following:

  • you haven’t taken paid vacation in the last three months,
  • you find yourself easily frustrated or irritated at work,
  • you find yourself unmotivated,
  • you or you co-workers find you unusually cynical,
  • you have unusual troubles sleeping at night,
  • you find yourself stressed without a clear reason,
  • you sense a general mismatch between your interests and your actual work.

Notice how some of these symptoms overlap with those of occupational burn-out. This is not a coincidence! Burn-out is a known possible outcome of imbalance between agency and responsibility on the workplace.

Being explicit

At some point after you’ve noticed imbalance, chances are you will initiate some changes. As a courtesy to your co-workers and the organization (so they are not “surprised” by your change in behavior), you should announce that you have noticed an imbalance and that you plan to do something about it.

The main audience for this announcement is the people whom you work most closely with: your direct co-workers and your manager. These are also the folk most likely to help you with this change.

You may feel overwhelmed or intimidated about being explicit in public. This is normal. Seek support from a trusted peer or manager to help you navigate this step in a way that makes you comfortable.

Taking action to restore balance

A healthy team takes pride in helping co-workers attain balance in their work.

You do not carry the full responsibility for adjusting your work in the face of imbalance! Also, in some times it is not practical as you may need others to participate too.

The following helps:

  • if you need PTO to re-focus, request it. PTO to re-gain balance should be taken seriously by your manager.

    Your co-workers will respect that and take on your responsibility burden until you feel restored.

  • Talk about the imbalance you’ve noticed:

    • Request an analysis of the situation by your peers and your manager.
    • Use example situations where you feel you have been pushed towards imbalance and discuss them.
    • Request suggestions of alternate actions or organizational adjustments.
    • Offer suggestions of alternate actions or organizational adjustments.
  • Start taking action with a small group at the level of your team, and only escalate if outcomes are not successful at that level.

Be open to the possibility that you have accepted / taken too much responsibility at your current level of skill or ability. Ideally, the organization should prevent this from happening in the first place, but sometimes mistakes are made. When the situation occurs, there are multiple parameters that can be tweaked, from training to transition into a better-suited role.

Negotiating boundaries

There is also a case when you feel the weight of a responsibility because nobody else is taking it—your sense of duty, or perhaps interest for some area, made you grow into that responsibility, and it ends up “consuming” you towards imbalance. This is difficult to adjust, because in that case it may seem like there is nobody else to push that responsibility to.

This can happen, for example, when a responsibility is not clearly attributed. For example, an organization might not properly attribute the task of triaging incoming support tickets. Every engineer may be nominally allowed to participate in this task (agency) but the responsibility is not nominal. Tech leads and managers are somewhat the “ultimate” bearers of this responsibility however this is not clearly defined. What then?

Another example is when the volume of work attached to a responsibility is excessive. For example, every engineer might nominally be responsible for fixing bugs in their area of expertise, but sometimes there are just too many to fix them all while retaining balance with other things. What then?

When you identify such a situation, three things need to happen:

  1. you should report it; this is part of “announcing imbalance” as described above, but also the mechanism by which the org is given opportunity to address the situation;
  2. you should work together with your co-workers and your manager to characterize the scope of the responsibility, and document it;
  3. you should establish a balance between that responsibility and other things. The most powerful tool to achieve that is time-boxing.

Oftentimes, a good course of action is to continue to shoulder a responsibility but focus on progress within a fixed amount of time instead of completion at all cost. This is the definition of “time boxing.”

It is usually OK if not everything is completed at the end of a day, a week or a month, as long as you are open and explicit about what has been achieved so far and why. Coming back on a promise is also possible, when you explain why your new situation is different from what you thought was possible when the promise was made. Perhaps you learned something, perhaps your circumstances have changed. This change is valued by your peers and will not be taken as a sign of weakness or inadequacy.

Also, people are reasonable. If you draw a list of your current responsibilities (including the off-time required to preserve your agency and your health) and the time it costs you to fulfill them, and highlight how “it does not fit”, nobody will blame you for deciding to re-arranging your priorities. The responsibility to “make things fit” do not fall on your shoulders alone; it is shared with the organization. Seek advice, mentorship and help from your co-workers and your manager.

“Am I doing all right?”

It is one thing to make efforts with agency and responsibility; it is another to know these efforts are actually heading somewhere.

How do you get feedback on your investments?

The following helps:

  • you might be “automatically” acknowledged for your efforts, however, this is not particularly likely; instead:
  • you can ask a co-worker directly: “I have been trying to do this or that recently, can you check I am doing all right?”
  • you can ask a manager to provide you this feedback, or to find a peer/co-worker for you who will be willing and able to do so;
  • you can ask to be acknowledged for your new abilities and responsibilities in a role. See Asking for recognition and responsibilities.

It is not a sign of lack of self-confidence nor a sign of weakness to ask for feedback explicitly; it is actually a sign of confidence and respect for our engineering values.

Your co-workers will value you more for being open about your learning process.

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Raphael ‘kena’ Poss Avatar Raphael ‘kena’ Poss is a computer scientist and software engineer specialized in compiler construction, computer architecture, operating systems and databases.

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