Last Tuesday, a good friend called to wish me a happy birthday. She and I had not talked in awhile, and she was lamenting her work situation. The pattern of her working life is unfortunate, and not uncommon, sadly. I’ve been there myself. She is one of those people who is very hard-working, enjoys her job, and is a team player.
You may wonder what the problem is with that. Anyone raised with a decent set of values, and who has any respect for themselves or others will likely fall into that category. How many career sessions have we attended in school, how many articles have we read online about how important these values are for working life? They are important. In a perfect world, everyone would be this way, and whatever the business, it would operate smoothly, efficiently—and ethically. And therein lies the rub—this is not a perfect world.
From my experience in working life, I consistently see a couple of things at play. One is group dynamics and the old “herd mentality”. Regardless of how sensible and intelligent any individual may be, they can back off from any kind of productive decision making if they feel they are going against the grain of the office, and of their superiors in particular. No one wants to be fired, or to spend eight hours or more a day in a place that is conflicted. Most people will just put their head down and “play nice”.
Which makes room for another kind of common behavior—manipulation. This can take a number of forms, but the most common seems to be passive-aggression—and outright aggression. An aggressive co-worker can bring things to a standstill, if they don’t want to do their job and threaten and harass anyone who tries to make them do it. While this is more common than you might imagine, passive-aggression exists almost everywhere. “Forgetting” to complete an assignment, not showing up on time or at all for a shift when a place is short-staffed—I’m sure anyone reading this could think of a number of other examples. If management doesn’t want to deal with the errant employee—and many do not want to go through the bother, especially in civil service—then the person goes on doing the minimum at the expense of others with no penalty.
Enter people like my friend. Someone who wants to get along with everyone, and do their job. What ends up happening is that management sees they are competent, and shifts all of the responsibility to them. It’s easier to assign work to the person you know will do it rather than make those who don’t want to work do their job. And if the person they’re dumping on complains, they tend to make fake promises to “fix” the situation, or simply threaten the hardworking person—after all, the hardworking person ultimately doesn’t want to rock the boat, so their superiors take advantage of them.
So, what is the answer? Boundaries. A lot of new hires will accept any assignment to prove themselves, not realizing that they’re only proving themselves to be gullible. The bottom line is: if a particular assignment is not part of your regular job, and you’re not thrilled about doing it—don’t. It will become part of your regular job. If you have the option of saying no, say no. There’s no need to be unprofessional about it—the best way is to say that you already have a lot on your plate and wouldn’t be able to adequately take care of the other assignment. Or, that you could do the task if it was an emergency, but you really couldn’t do it as part of your regular work. There’s nothing wrong with establishing boundaries at work, just as you establish boundaries in personal relationships. That doesn’t make you uncooperative or bitchy—it suggests that you’re willing to do your part, but you’re not willing to have anyone take advantage of you. It’s a myth that you should willingly accept every assignment to prove yourself. By not taking every assignment you prove that you are realistic about setting priorities. It's also about honesty--don't volunteer to do something you honestly don't have time to do. Sometimes we are flattered by the faith others have in us, but you are only being dishonest with yourself and them in the long run if you allow yourself to be ruled by it.
If you’ve established the pattern of being “the one to do everything”, it can be hard to break the pattern. You have to risk the resentment of others, and maybe the wrath of superiors. Sometimes the only way to break the pattern is to look for a new job, and vow not to re-establish the pattern there. If you can’t do that, you may have to learn defensive manipulation, otherwise known as “diplomacy”. Better yet, “Irish diplomacy”—telling someone to go to hell in a way that makes them look forward to the trip.
Fortunately, I have paid off some kind of bad-job karma and currently have an excellent situation where everyone in my department actually likes each other and works things out together. (Note to my boss and co-workers if you are reading this—you are NOT ALLOWED to leave unless you’re taking me with you. Thank you.) Though I can say that when I was hired, there were some “optional” duties listed, and I inquired about how optional they were. The director who hired me said, “If you don’t want to do it, don’t volunteer for it.” That has proved to be excellent advice.