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The Awful, Horrible Curse of Being Good At Your Job

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You’re reading articles online about productivity and how to move ahead in your career. That means you likely have a terrible affliction. You’re good at your job, and it’s killing you.

This is a well-known phenomenon to people who are competent. When it comes time to assign new work, everyone knows the hardest workers will do it so they are the ones who get those tasks. It is kind of like always passing the ball to your star players: it might help win games but it doesn’t develop the rest of the team. Plus, you’re putting the top contributors at risk of exhaustion.

A paper by researchers from Duke University, University of Georgia, and University of Colorado provides a compelling summary of the problem (even if it’s in dry academic language):

Results from these studies provide novel evidence that individuals’ self-control affects others’ attitudes and behaviors toward them, and suggest that these interpersonal dynamics can have negative consequences for high self-control individuals.

Translated: people who are known for their discipline tend to suffer at the hands of people who are not known for their discipline. Or more loosely: no good deed goes unpunished.

Man Sweating

© Flickr user Ryan Hyde

In a piece for The Atlantic, journalist Bourree Lam quotes one of the researchers:

“People ask high self-control people to do more for perfectly logical reasons—because they think that those who successfully demonstrate high (vs. low) self-control will perform better and accomplish more. So it is a reasonable thing to do, from the perspective of the partner, the manager, the coworker,” says Christy Zhou Koval, a Ph.D student at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and lead author of the study. “But for the actor, it can feel like a burden. Why should you do more work for the same reward, while your less capable coworker coasts along with lower expectations and work?”

There is a connection between desirable traits in the workplace. People who have more self-control tend to be more competent. They tend to be more aware of what’s going on. They tend to be more detail-oriented. And they tend to have full schedules with plenty to do.

The Science of Us section of New York Magazine quotes productivity expert Laura Vanderkam on this last bit:

I agree that the phrase “if you want something done, ask a busy person” is true in my experience as well. I think it’s because people with full lives have a good sense of exactly how long things take, how much can fit in any given day or week, and how much they’ve currently got on their plates. If they take something on, it’s because they’ve thought about how long it will take, they’ve looked at the amount of available time, and have calculated if it will work.

Also, people who are busy are more likely to say “no” than to say “yes” and then flake on you. That makes them a more attractive choice for any work you need done.

What Managers Should Do

Failure is the secret to success. If you want something done, consider giving the task to someone who needs to grow and learn to be more disciplined. That will help your team to improve overall, rather than continuing to overburden the most productive and competent people.

What the Competent People Should Do

Ask for help. Reach out to those who can contribute even though you may not perceive them as self-disciplined, and see if they are willing to step up. The best (and only way) to become more professional and more effective is by doing the work. Ask them to be part of the process and eventually, you won’t be the one who is seemingly responsible for everything.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
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