Because I Said So

You are in the middle of writing a final report and you get an email reminding you that your timesheet is due tomorrow. Or you are deep into planning for a presentation when you realize you signed up for a training you really wish you didn’t have to take. Or your boss asks you to handle a bunch of meaningless crap you really don’t think should be your job to handle. Quick: what do you do?

My first reaction, to be perfectly honest, is to avoid the imposition. Why should I take time from the final report to do a time sheet? The report is more central and important to my work. Why should I take a training I’m not sure I need when there is real work to do? Why should I do what my boss asks when she asks it? Okay, maybe that last one is self-explanatory.

We all see our core job responsibilities as the most important part of what we do, right? My core responsibilities circle around strategy and managing people and projects. For me, the final report and the presentation are the most important things in my day – in the end, I get thanks and praise if I do those well, and disappointment (and sometimes less donor money) if I don’t. What happens to me if I do the timesheet on time, or go to the training? Nothing much. What happens to me if I don’t? Nothing much. Do you see the problem here?

The thing is, I have colleagues whose core job responsibility is to get those timesheets submitted, to get all of us to the trainings, to make the place work. When I dismiss the email about the timesheet without doing it, I dismiss my colleague. When I decide I am too busy to go to the training, I am saying I am too busy for what is important to someone else. It is as if we were a household and we all insisted that we spent so much time keeping our own rooms clean that we simply couldn’t also be asked to clean the bathroom, mow the lawn, or load the dishwasher.

Clearly this wouldn’t fly in our households. A child’s refusal to clean the bathroom might result in a mother’s refusal to drive said child to his BFF’s house. (Just hypothetically speaking, of course. I wouldn’t know anything about recalcitrant children.) Here at work the quid pro quo is much less obvious, and therefore less compelling. What happens to me if I do the time sheet? Nothing. What happens to me if I don’t? Nothing.

There can be two responses to the problem of cleaning the metaphorical bathrooms – in other words, doing the work you don’t think is your core responsibility to do:

  1. Ignore and resist the tasks until you are made to do them, either through systems that impose penalties (such as negative performance reviews) or deny access (such as locking computers) or force your colleagues to shame you (such as sending all staff emails with your name in flashing red font). Yeah, none of those things are good. But that is what we are doing when we dismiss the email or skip the training. We are saying, in essence: make me.
  2. Accept that your job is not just to keep your own room clean, but to pitch in to clean the bathroom and load the dishwasher, too. To really get that the work of every other member of the family is just as important as your own. What does that look like in the office? For me, it means that I made a rule for myself that I have to do my timesheet the moment I see the email in my inbox, because I know if I ignore it once I’ll forget it forever. I catch myself when I start saying “gosh, I’m too busy” in order to get myself out of doing something everyone else is expected to do. I try to get over myself.

Have I lectured enough? Good. Oh, and just a reminder – timesheets are over due. Click on the link, people.

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