“It’s not my job.” “I can’t work out of
class.” “Sorry, my plate is full.” Have you ever used any of those phrases, or
similar ones? I’ve heard people proudly proclaim that they are protecting
themselves from being abused by their employer, when they refuse to take on
additional work. Let me tell you why I think that this attitude if expressed,
either verbally or even by your behavior, is guaranteed to be self-defeating
and almost a death-knell to your advancement in the workplace.
In the workplace, you gain value by your
willingness to learn new things, take on new tasks, and act in a cooperative
manner. There needs to be a spirit of wanting to help your boss and dedication
to your company’s bottom line. Thus, those who are too self-protective of what
is or is not their own responsibility are typically those who fail to get
promoted. Negativity typically loses out in the long run.
The Law of Reciprocity – which basically
states that, without keeping score, people do tend to reciprocate the favors
they receive from others. Or another way of looking at this concept is to
realize the importance of goodwill in the workplace as well as any other place.
Saying ‘yes’ is so much nicer than saying ‘no.’
Being generous may not yield immediate
results. The concept of reciprocity is not the same as exchanging money for
goods in the stores in which you shop. It is more abstract, long-term and vague
– but generally speaking it does work.
How can you grow in your job if you don’t
volunteer to learn new things? Do you have to wait to be invited? Do you need
the raise and promotion before you learn something new? Do you tightly control
what you are willing to do for others – including your boss?
Let me tell you a few stories.
Some years ago, I was consulting to a
county agency that was experiencing enormous internal conflict. Union v.
non-union folk were fighting, paralegals were fighting with non-paralegal
administrative staff and also with attorneys. Attorneys were fighting with other
professionals, management and each other; it was a mess.
I decided to start the conflict resolution
process by working with “affinity groups” – that is with those people on a
particular side in the various arguments. In one of my groups, I noticed that
each week one woman would close her papers, put on fresh lipstick and sit with
her purse on the table waiting for the session to end. She started this process
15 minutes before our session, which was the last one of the day, was to end. Among this woman’s complaints was that others
were promoted ahead of her. No wonder!
Now, let me contrast this with another
A young woman, graduating high school very
young, got her first job as a file clerk in a privately owned company in New
York City. By the second day she was asking to be taught the switchboard, which
she then learned and moved on to ask for typing jobs, secretarial jobs, etc. In
a few short months she had been promoted several times. Later, this same young woman became a
bookkeeper, an assistant credit and collections manager – and finally became a
manager of customer service, while not yet having gone to college.
Why – how? Because she kept asking to be
taught something new. Because she finished whatever tasks were assigned her efficiently
and effectively and reached out for more work – rather than pretending she was
As you might have guessed, that young woman
was me – many years ago. The experience I gained during those years has proven
invaluable to me as I consult to others helping them “get the best out of
themselves and others” in the workplace.
The Law of Reciprocity – the more I asked
to learn, the more valuable I became, and the more willing others were to teach
me something new.
Not only that, but the CEO of our company
granted me a huge favor because he liked and respected me. I was attending
school nights a few days a week on the other side of Manhattan. I’d rush out
the door on those nights in order to use public transportation to get to school
on time. Mr. Lowe, the CEO, stopped me at the elevator one day
asking why I rushed out two nights a week, when I was perfectly willing to work
late the other nights. I explained. He offered me his chauffeured limousine and
from that day forward, two nights a week I was driven to class by Ray, Mr.
Lowe’s chauffeur. I will never forget his kindness.
The Law of Reciprocity – in today’s
workplace, most projects are completed by those with whom we work and over whom
we cannot hold a whip. It is goodwill, persuasion, and the return of favors
that is the coin of the realm. How people feel about you will determine how
readily they respond to your request that they help you on your project.
The Law of Reciprocity – when you need
something from me, I bend over backwards to get it done for you in a timely and
quality manner. Later, when I need something from you, you will remember.
This does not mean every transaction needs
to be a quid pro quo. We don’t keep score. Not only don’t we keep score, but
how can you measure what any one favor is worth compared to any other.
Perhaps the work I did for you took me a
long time, but was felt as trivial to you. So what? I’ll do it anyway because
who knows what opportunities come up in the future. Perhaps some small favor I did for you
actually was the key to saving a very important project – and thus your
reputation – for you. It took me only minutes, but to you it was incredibly
“Not my job.” If you use this expression, maybe
it means you are really afraid of learning something new. Maybe it means you
think it is beneath your dignity to do this for someone else. Maybe it is
because you are afraid that “if you give an inch, they’ll demand an arm.” Whatever
your fear, you might be creating self-fulfilling prophecy. Can you see that the person to whom you’ve
said ‘no’ assumes the meaning behind your rejection of the favor? The
assumption might be quite detrimental to your reputation. “Not my job.” Isn’t that guaranteed to have
the other person think less of you? Isn’t that guaranteed to have you passed
over next time there is a great opportunity that might lead to a raise and
“I can’t work out of class.” That’s code
for saying your loyalty is completely to your union and not to your co-workers,
supervisors, or even your employer. “Working out of class” is one of the tools
unions use to make them more valuable – but it stifles your ability to get your
raise and promotion, without it coming from the union/management negotiation
process. When people are able to negotiate their
promotions and raises for themselves, they have far less need for the union to
negotiate for them.
“Sorry, my plate is full.” Another bad answer. Yes, maybe it’s true. However,
a much better answer would be to say, “Of course I’ll do this for you, but I’d
like your opinion as to what other tasks (projects) to defer in order to make
this one a higher priority.”
In other words, you are saying ‘yes’, even
though in truth your plate is full. The bottom line: people like to do business
with people they like. Managers, caught in the middle of demands from higher ups
and the need to get help from their staff, will look more favorably on those
they see as willing and cooperative.
So, “not my job” or any of its variations
is often the start of falling out of favor.