Karen was tired. As a business owner, she always felt that there was more to do than she could possibly find the time to do. She had a team, but they didn’t seem to be pulling their weight. She would talk with them about different initiatives and share her ideas, but then nothing seemed to happen. It always came down to her. She felt overwhelmed and burdened.

Down the hall, Jane was frustrated, too. From her perspective, it felt like Karen wasn’t making any room for her. They would get together to talk about a new initiative or project, but at the end of the discussion, there would be one more piece that Karen wanted to do before handing it over. Jane could see ways to contribute, but it often seemed like Karen wasn’t ready for her input. Jane felt under-used and, frankly, a little bored.

Most of us have been in a situation where responsibilities were out of balance. We either took on more responsibility than we needed to and felt overly burdened, or we watched a business partner, boss or colleague take over and felt slighted or even micromanaged by them. Either way, there was likely confusion, frustration, and resentment—all of which impact productivity and overall quality of work life.

So why does this happen, and what can we do about it?

The first thing to know is that what we’re experiencing in these situations isn’t personal. In our example, it’s not about Karen or Jane. If it were just about them, it wouldn’t be so common across people, styles, ages, industries and the like. The dynamic that Karen and Jane are experiencing is a typical pattern of group life.

What do I mean by that? Whether your company has two, twenty, or two hundred employees, there are systemic organizational patterns that come into play and affect how people interact with one another. Some patterns shift over time (think “toddler years”) while others stem from our role relationships. Either way, these patterns transcend personality.

The pattern that Karen and Jane are in is what Barry Oshry has described as a Top-Bottom pattern. That dynamic shows up in various role relationships: superior-to-subordinate; business owner-to-contractors; business owner-to-staff; team leader-to-team-members; committee chair-to-volunteers.

The dynamic is this: When we are in these roles with one another, we automatically assume (if we’re not paying attention) that responsibility for the outcome sits with the Top. Because we see it that way, we create a relationship in which the Top is feeling burdened (“it’s all on me”), and the Bottom is feeling oppressed (“they don’t care what I think”).

The alternative to living in this dynamic is to shift from Burdened Top-Oppressed Bottom to Partnership. Oshry defines partnership as “a relationship in which we are jointly committed to the success of whatever endeavor, program, or process we are engaged in.”

So, what can we do to shift from Top-Bottom into partnership?


The first step is to know that the pattern exists and keep an eye out for it.  When you are working with someone in a Top-Bottom relationship, watch how you think about responsibility — are either of you assuming it’s with the Top?

As leaders, if we know that’s the reflexive pattern, we can take a step back, assess the situation, and make changes. If you’re Top, look for ways to shift responsibility to your colleague.  If you’re Bottom, speak up and suggest ways that you can take responsibility and contribute to the outcome.


What does success look like? Where are we headed? When there is a shared understanding of the outcome, it will be easier for everyone on the team to take responsibility for getting there.


Creating space for everyone to contribute benefits the leader, the team, and the project overall. When the goal is clear and partnership is created, everyone is freed up to bring their best thinking forward. When people are able to contribute their best work, and to make progress toward a meaningful goal, they are more engaged and satisfied.

Share responsibility so that everyone is more engaged and satisfied. Click To Tweet

Your next step:  Think about a work relationship you’re in that might be caught in a Burdened Top – Oppressed Bottom dynamic.  What steps will you take to shift to partnership?

For more ideas about some of the patterns that affect teams, I recommend the following additional reading:

  • Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life, by Barry Oshry
  • Taking Up Your Role: How to Shift Between Life and Work Without Losing Yourself, by Anna-Lena Sundlin and Paul Sundlin


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