Avoiding Guilt & Obligation in the Workplace

Somebody asks you to do something that tweaks your sense of obligation. It could be a favor. It could be a contribution to a good cause. Maybe you feel manipulated. That sneaky feeling of obligation should put you on red alert to take a moment to pause. Think about whether you are responding out of obligation, rather than joy or generosity, and ask yourself, “What is going on here, that I feel obligated? Am I agreeing to do this so I won’t feel guilty?”

Here are some situations where guilt and obligation in the workplace are working hand-in-hand.

  • You feel obliged to cover for your co-worker, because her mother is in the hospital
  • You take more time than you can afford, listening to someone complain
  • You volunteer for a project that is for a good cause but is de-energizing
  • You are overly cautious in giving feedback to someone who has a way of making you feel sorry for him/her
  • You agree to a request from your manager to go over a report one more time, because you know he/she is anxious and it will make him or her feel better.

Each one of these situations is a set-up for guilt. No one wants to feel guilty. So yielding to that temptation to just oblige the person or the situation, can feel like an easy solution. But doing this may be going in the wrong direction, especially if you want to feel energized and balanced in your life. Obligation may “save” you from guilt, but it is an energy killer and can suck your life force in ways you might not even see, until you step back and take a clear look.

Avoiding Guilt and Obligation in the Workplace

The alternative is to minimize or eliminate activities that you do only out of obligation or guilt. It means finding a gracious way to decline, or say no when you are being invited to participate in an activity that you know will deplete you. Often, this means being willing to have a “stare down” with your guilt, and to say NO to it.

Usually there is no need to burn bridges or get an attitude when deciding to stop being ruled by obligation and guilt. The biggest NO should be with your self, not the other person. Look for a way to address the situation graciously. Acknowledge the other person’s feelings and then say what you need.

For example, with the person who is going on and on with their complaints, you could say, “Yeah, that sounds really terrible and I’m sorry to hear how hard it is on you. I’m in a time crunch now, so I’ll need to get going. I hope this all works out.”

The message is like a little sandwich.

Bread: acknowledge the other person
Meat or tofu: state your needs
Bread: acknowledge the other person

After you deliver your message, be prepared for any guilt that may come up. When it does, remember that your life force is precious and shouldn’t be squandered. Save it for what is truly important, truly valuable, and meaningful. This commitment to caring for your own life force will be energizing and much more life giving.

What are some other situations where you feel obliged to comply with a request rather than feel guilty? What kind of tools or skills have you used to decline such requests?

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Barbara Bouchet

Barbara Bouchet is President of Contact Point Associates and author of "The Enlightened Edge for Leaders: Ignite the Power of You." She coaches and trains leaders and teams to expand, transform and take delight in their work and life. Connect with Barbara.

Reader Interactions


  1. Linda Prain says

    What a tasty bite during my lunch hour today. I loved the sandwich of acknowledgment. Making room for myself, yet still sending kindness to others. Such an simple way to remember the art of communication while avoiding guilt. I look forward to more more articles!

  2. Carina says

    I love the reminder that my life force is precious and shouldn’t be squandered. The sandwich idea is brilliant and an easy way to be sure I get my message across without squandering someone else’s life force. 🙂 Thank you for this message!


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