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I have some employees who will pick up any task that falls by the wayside, take on tasks or responsibilities that other people should be doing but aren't, and end up doing all the things no-one else volunteered for almost by default. The problem comes in when they then grumble about being too busy / having to work overtime / take work home / etc. etc.

It's clear to me that the behaviour is detrimental to the person's health and wellbeing (often they end up working unpaid overtime, bringing work home, etc.), and ultimately it harms the rest of the team/group/business as underlying issues are being covered up or not properly handled, rather than exposed & dealt with.

What strategies could I implement to reduce this behaviour so that neglect is not covered up, good employees are not burned out, and management is more aware of workplace difficulties?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Jun 10 '16 at 10:59
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    Are you a manager of these people or are you at the same level as them - both under someone else? I recently "martyred" myself on a project because of the real possibility that the project not getting done on time could lead to the whole department getting fired, so I did it to save my job. Ideally, our manager would have stayed on top of it and made sure the original people assigned the task got it done correctly and on time or they would be fired. Maybe the focus should be on those who are not pulling their weight rather than those who seem to be pulling too much. – Todd Wilcox Jun 10 '16 at 12:42
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    Your example was a relatively mild case of "martyrdom", containing at least some good faith to help in a project. I've seen worse. Boss giving a task to coworkers before the lunch break, but explicitly stating that it's not urgent and they can do it after their break. They eagerly jump to it and say they do it right away, the boss stops them and tells them they can have their break, it's not urgent. Boss goes away, coworkers instantly start working on the task, while loudly complaining to the onlookers (who were not present when the boss said it's not urgent) that their break is not respected. – Val Jun 10 '16 at 14:54
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    I've seen environments like this develop, largely when a few slackers were not doing the work or the boss didn't realize certain tasks upfront would save a lot of time later and wasn't prioritizing them. If they are acting like martyrs it's probably because they perceive themselves as pulling the weight and not getting rewarded. That can be the case when the slackers are allowed all the same raises/job perks as the hard workers who will just keep on taking more work in hopes it will eventually get them recognized or slackers punished. – TechnicalEmployee Jun 10 '16 at 16:41
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    tood/vsz/techemployee - It was a general question, I've experienced this with colleagues, people "above" and "below" me in the chain, and (hardest of all) friends & family. Challenging friends/family is hardest as you have no professional leverage or structure to employ, and sometimes you're fighting a culture at their workplace that's come to expect them to behave like that. – John U Jun 10 '16 at 17:05

11 Answers 11

81

As I said in my comment above, focus on the behavior. You seem focused on perceived attitudes which you need to cease to do. If someone is taking on too many tasks, reassign the tasks to someone with less on their plate. It doesn't matter what the motives of the person are, nor is it right to assume what those motives may be.

The only things you can address are actions and behavior.

If someone is complaining, take them aside and advise them that if they have a problem, they need to address it with management and that simply complaining achieves nothing. Then solicit their input. They may actually have something useful to say.

If they are taking on tasks that would have fallen by the wayside, first thank them, then see who let the ball drop and take them to task. You don't want to lose a person who is dedicated to a company to the point of picking up tasks others are neglecting. Perhaps you should be focused on the ones who are letting things slip instead of the ones picking up the slack.

If someone gets to the point of appearing to be a martyr to you, investigate why things were allowed to get lax enough for them to take on extra tasks to begin with.

Edited to add:

A previous boss of mine told this to our entire team "Sometimes you have to just let the ball drop so people will know what's going on".

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    The last sentence really says it all. – Wildcard Jun 9 '16 at 22:08
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    +1 for working to identify what wayside tasks they're picking up - however, as for identifying who dropped the ball originally and taking them to task - this would almost invariably be management: either for not ensuring the assigned individual undertook the task, or for not ensuring there was enough resources/staff to perform the task in the first place. – HorusKol Jun 9 '16 at 22:58
  • @HorusKol ok, so, I think, that can be rephrased better as "then see why the ball was dropped in the first place and what can be done to fix that". If that's just a overlooked stuff - ok, it can be "one-shot" problem. But maybe, the person who overlooked the task has problems with something and this should be investigated more deeply, in order to help the person in a long term to be a better team member. Or, for instance, there is a lack of resources and this is just the first glimpse on the problems that may lay ahead and the additional resources should be brought ASAP to avoid them. – Ivan Kolmychek Jun 10 '16 at 8:40
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You could be describing one of two situations:

  • Your workplace is dysfunctional, and these people are saving the day. In some places, the normal channels of completing work are not fully functioning, and things get delivered only if people who care take the initiative to see and fix problems, even if it is not their responsibility. If this is the case, these employees are not the problem. Of course they get stressed out and complain about their workload, but so would anyone in this situation. In this case, the culture and structure of the company need fixing--no easy task.
  • These people's "help" is not needed and is impeding optimum output. In this case, the employees doing this are the problem. I would say the primary solution is to make sure they have very clear responsibilities and are managed effectively on delivering what they are responsible for. In addition, directly addressing the fact that they are taking on too much (and telling them not to do specific things if it comes to that) is probably needed.

But you need to be sure of the root cause of the problem (and it could be somewhere in between the two scenarios).

  • All workplaces are dysfunctionnal to an extent. In all cases it's the behaviour that have to change, even if that may mean the management realise it created a gap – Arthur Havlicek Jun 10 '16 at 10:14
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I've worked with a person like this once before, and she was indeed, the workplace martyr. She would almost impose her help on people, pick up way more tasks than she could handle, and then end up dropping the ball on a bunch of them, while actually putting in more work and hours than pretty much anyone else (in early, home late, no over-time pay).

I find that this sort of attitude typically stems from a couple of different reasons:

Many times these people are either too nice for their own good and end up being used by those who realize they can offload their work on them, or are simply driven by a conviction that their work is better than anyone elses, and if they want somethign done right they have to do it themselves.

There are so many psychological and inter-personal variables that go into this topic that it's daunting to even consider typing it all out. So I won't.

What you really want to know is how to convince such people to change their ways. And the answer is that you might not be able to.

As a manager you can try to guide them. Explain to them that they need to work as a part of a team, that overworking themselves will only lead to burnout, etc. However you can't force them to take your advice.

If it's your friends who are behaving in this way then try to focus their attention on activities that you could do together. Point out that they're missing out on the rest of world while killing themselves doing other people's jobs.

In the end they're the ones who have to want to change, however.

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If these are your direct reports, manage them.

If someone picks up a task that someone else should be doing, simply tell the person that picked it up to let the person that should be doing it handle it. If you believe that no one on your team should be doing something, simply tell the team not to do it. If a small group of people is picking up tasks that everyone on the team should be handling, create a process to assign those tasks rather than looking for volunteers. Perhaps that means that every day/ week/ month a different person on the team is responsible for some task and you simply manage a calendar of whose responsibility it is.

If you aren't the manager of these individuals, then unless they're asking you for help or advice, butt out. Your friends and colleagues are always going to do things differently from the way you would do them. Sometimes your approach is going to be better, sometimes their approach is going to be better, sometimes each approach works better for one person than another. You can't make your friends organized, you can't get them to exercise regularly or to avoid junk food, you can't force them to prioritize work a particular way. You are, of course, free to decline to listen to them whine about their choices or to occasionally point out that they are complaining about a situation that they put themselves in. But that may have negative impacts on your personal relationships.

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"someone's got to do it, an (sic) no-one else was going to"*

At times I've been one of those people who has stepped in to do things that need to get done and yet no one was doing them. Sometimes it has had a negative effect on my life and career. Sometimes I have complained about it. The complaints are often (perhaps poorly worded) statements about problems in the group and calls for help and recognition.

To address this, ask if it is really true that required tasks aren't getting done. If the tasks aren't necessary, point that out to the person and suggest that they leave them undone. If they are necessary, determine why jobs that need to be done don't have someone tasked to do them. Consider stepping up yourself and helping get them done. If you are in position to do so, make sure every necessary job has a person assigned to do it and a reasonable schedule. Also, give some thanks and recognition to the person for getting the job done.

Also, it's not clear what sort of work you mean: If business functions are being left undone, then management needs to be making assignments for those jobs and following up to ensure that they are done. If it's "housekeeping" (e.g. cleaning the shared refrigerator and throwing out the rotten food that someone forgot), then perhaps a rotating schedule can be set up so that everyone takes a turn doing it, rather than letting it fall to the so-called "workplace martyr".

*This quote was part of the original question. The question has been edited and the quote removed.

5

I have managed people like this. You'll probably never root the behaviour out entirely but a few things that work are:

  • Schedule regular one-to-ones with people to talk about workload. It doesn't have to be weekly, could be monthly, but this is a useful way to keep tabs on behaviour. You can also set clear goals.
  • As much as you can, identify what these tasks are that are falling by the wayside, and either state clearly that they are not urgent, or assign them to someone.
  • When you find that someone is engaging in this martyr-like behaviour, don't say anything like "oh, you shouldn't have!" which they'll take as a compliment. Say clearly something like "I wish you hadn't done that." Make your disapproval known. (In private. Don't embarrass anyone!)

It's really important that, even if the martyrs carry on being martyrs, it's clear to all that they're doing it to themselves. You don't want others, who are not inclined to be martyrs, to interpret this as being the norm.

  • Good points. There is a bit of tension here between not embarrassing the employee, and yet needing to make it clear to everyone else that this is not the norm. It's a fine line to walk. – user45590 Jun 10 '16 at 7:21
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I would think a daily status / standup type meeting should help sort this out. Since everyone is reporting what they've done / what they plan to do for the day, you should quickly find out if they have taken on work they aren't supposed to.

If they didn't get done what they said they would yesterday, then they'll have to say that it was because they were doing this other work. (Unless they have a reason to actively hide it from you.)

If they complain that they are too busy, they will have to tell you what is keeping them busy, at which point you'll have the chance to correctly prioritise it and fit it into someone's work schedule.

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If you don't want people to drive themselves past reasonable levels, set reasonablbe expectations, and make clear that they can get a good performance review without having to kill themselves.

You get the behavior you reward.

Note that this means that, unless you are the manager seeing those expectations, you have no ability to affect this.

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I will write as though you're in IT. If you are in a fundamentally different field, this may not apply.

If you are the martyr's manager, simply do not allow them to accept work that you have not vetted and prioritized. By definition, the work you assign to them is the most important thing they can possibly do. If they are doing other project work, then they are reducing shareholder value. Support work is different.

Now, if unscheduled (support) work must be done (for example, figure out why the billing isn't balancing this month) then build time into the schedule for said work. Now there is no reason for people to martyr themselves.

And by all means, talk to them directly but tactfully, and let them know you're concerned about the extra hours and burnout. Ask them not to do it. If they persist but are worthwhile employees, consider putting them on full support work and relieving the other developers of said work.

All that being said, if you are not the manager, then it is not your problem. If the martyr is making you look bad because you aren't putting in 60 hours/week, and your bosses think you should up your game, managerial brain-death has occurred and you need a new job.

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The part about people grumbling and underlying issues being covered up instead of exposed and dealt with reminded me of our teams before we started the practice of retrospectives. It's where the team meets together regularly—for us every two weeks—and has an open discussion about what went well, what didn't go well, and how to make adjustments or build on previous success going forward.

It takes a while to work. The first month or two is mostly complaining, but once the teams start seeing real change happening, it's really difficult to see a martyr problem persisting. They would complain about their "extra" work, and the rest of the team would figure out a way to communicate better about their excess capacity, or point out the work wasn't in scope, or do better about setting priorities.

Then two weeks later in the next retrospective, you get back together and say, "Okay, we tried X to solve Ms. Martyr's problem. Did it help?" If it worked, you continue doing it. If it didn't, you adjust until you get it right.

I've seen some very tough problems solved with this process, as long as the team is willing to give it a shot.

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This question asks "What strategies could I implement to reduce this behaviour", but it seems to me that the answers are too light on specifics. So while my answer is a bit more tactical than strategic, I think it may be of use.

  1. As a manager, ensure that you have proper tooling for knowing what people's responsibilities are.

    • In a software world, this is typically a ticketing system (JIRA, RT, HP, whatever).

    • In business world, this is sometimes some sort of dashboard like technology

    The exact tool doesn't matter, as long as the following capabilities exist:

    • Every task has a line item in the tool

    • Every task has an owner.

    • For bonus points, tasks have priority and/or urgency; and expected time to complete.

    This allows you as a manager to both be crystal clear on who gets to work on what. People can't grab a task you expect someone else to complete, as they aren't assigned that task.

    In reverse direction, as a manager, you get good clarity into what the actual and expected volume of total work is, as well as everyone's workload and performance.

  2. Institute policies and procedures, using your tooling, to combat actual issues you face:

    • Is someone grabbing low priority tasks?

      Make it a clear policy that nobody is allowed to do that if they have high priority task assigned and not yet completed. If they feel that a specific task is in need of raising priority, have them communicate to you the rationale for doing so and raise priority as warranted.

    • Is some important task not being done?

      Figure out (that's your job as a manager) who needs to work on it, assign it to that person. Ideally the tool communicates that to the assignee but if important enough follow up with in-person notice.

    • Someone not working on tasks they are assigned?

      Time for a serious conversations about their performance - and the tool gives you and if needed HR all the data needed.

  • What can be improved in this asnwer? – user13655 Jun 16 '16 at 14:28

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