A reader writes:
I’m a department head and team leader, and I currently manage about 25 people. I’m also fairly new to management, so I’m still learning the ropes of proper management and how to handle certain issues.
I’m very lucky because my whole team works well together and there are no “bad seeds.” We are one of the highest performing departments in the whole company, and I’m very honored to be a part of it. That said, I am having a very backwards problem with one of my reports, Jill, being too accommodating and self-sacrificing.
We have very general hours that we work, but it’s not uncommon for things to change at a moment’s notice whenever something comes up. Everyone is aware of this when they sign up, and we do our absolute best to rotate who has to stay late versus who gets to leave at their normal time, etc. Everyone seems pretty content with how things work as long as there is equal division of overtime and such.
Jill, however, will often volunteer herself to work the longest hours to take the most un-enjoyable part of the work every single time. A lot of my conversations with the team will go something like this:
Me: We have a large new project that’s just been brought it us and the client has put in a rush order, so we’re really going to need to push over the next few days.
Jill: I’ll do it!
Me: That’s okay, you did it last time, plus you’re going to be on vacation the next couple of days. We’ll see if we can get someone else to handle it before we come to that.
Jill: No need, I’ll do it. I’ll cancel my vacation immediately!
And the next thing I know, Jill has put in a request to cancel her time off and has already told the others they can go on home and she’ll stay late. She does this even if I tell her to wait!
In any given month, there are at least a few times where Jill volunteers herself to stay late, work through lunch, cancel scheduled time off, or even do someone else’s work for them so they can leave early.
For context, while might sound like an overachieving grad student who is desperate to prove themselves, Jill is actually an older woman who has been working in this role and industry for several years. As far as I can tell, she has always been this way. She also does not seem passive-aggressive or upset about all the extra work or cancelling time off, and her work is always well thought-out and excellent. I really have to change very little when I edit her projects.
All of that said, though, I simply do not know how to tell her to please back off and let us distribute the extra responsibilities a bit more! Asking her to cancel a vacation would be an absolute last resort for me, not a first or even second choice.
I have had one sit-down talk with Jill in my office where I emphasized that she was not in trouble, but I explained everything I said above and how it’s okay for her to allow others to do the extra work once in a while. It’s supposed to be rotated so that it doesn’t fall on one person’s shoulders every single time. Throughout our conversation, she kept insisting to me that she didn’t mind and that she was happy to help in any way needed. Our talk ended up not being much more than me saying “you don’t have to do it every time” and her saying “I don’t mind!” After that, her behavior did not really change.
I’m at the point where I’d like to address this again because it simply isn’t fair to Jill, but I’m struggling to come up with a better way to phrase it. I suppose I could “pull rank” and ban her from working on certain things, but that seems too harsh for this situation. Any ideas on how to better handle this?
It sounds when you spoke to Jill about this last time, you framed it as “it’s okay to let others do some of the work.” It sounds optional and it leaves the door open for her to say, “oh, but I don’t mind!”
Instead of framing it as “it’s okay to do X,” you’ve got to frame it as “I need you to stop doing Y.”
So, sit down with her again and this time say something like this: “I apologize for not being clear enough about this the last time we talked about it. It’s important to me that our work is distributed evenly among everyone. I know that you’re willing to pitch in and do more than your share, but I actually need other people to take an equal share. When you rush to pitch in so others don’t have to, you are interfering with my ability to manage the team fairly and equitably. So when I decline your offer to help with something or tell you that I will find someone else to do a project, I need you to respect that. It’s okay to offer, but when I say no, you need to leave it there and not tell others they don’t need to pitch in.”
You could also say, “Going forward, I don’t want to see you canceling scheduled time off because you think you need to be here. I realize you may not mind doing that, but I don’t want the rest of the team thinking there’s an expectation on them that they’ll do the same — and right now you’re creating that pressure. That’s a real concern for me about the health of our team, so I cannot let you continue to do that.”
In a different context, I might tell you not to interfere with her decisions to stay late, work through lunch, or help someone else with their work so they can leave early, especially if that’s only happening occasionally. In some contexts, I’d say that’s really her call, and it’s her call if she wants to build good will with people in that way. However, in this case it seems like part of a larger problem and so it might be worth also saying something like, “I know that you like being helpful to coworkers and will sometimes do their work for them so they can leave early. I can’t let you keep doing that. I assign work to specific people for a reason, and I need those assignments to stay where I placed them.” (You could add that there can be exceptions when someone is in a bind, but I’m concerned she doesn’t have the judgment yet to distinguish when that is and isn’t the case.)
All of this is about reframing it for her from what she’s willing to do, to what you need her to do differently.
Also, because Jill sounds like someone who derives a lot of her self-worth (or her sense of how others value her) from Being Helpful, it might be worth making a conscious effort to give her positive feedback on the things you value more about her work. Make sure she’s getting recognition for what she does well (it sounds like there’s a lot of it), some of it public. It might be that over time emphasizing her value in other areas will ease some of whatever internal pressure is behind this.
Or not! But in that case, being firm and clear about what needs to change — not just suggesting she doesn’t need to help so much — should get you where you want to be.
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