Picture this: you’re frantically trying to finish a job. You’ve skipped lunch and your usual afternoon coffee to try and get it wrapped up before the end of the day. Then you get an email from a colleague asking if you can check their report for errors before they send it to the client. The nerve! Why can’t they just do their job?
In your frazzled state, you fire off a quick email telling them, essentially, that quality checking reports is not part of your job description. Later, once you’ve successfully hit your deadline, you feel a nagging sense of worry… In hindsight, you could have been a little more diplomatic about the situation. Now you have a strained report with your colleague, and they’re unlikely to ask you for help again. You’ve ultimately damaged your team’s eagerness for collaboration. Oops.
Making this mistake once — and learning from it — is forgivable. But sometimes, people make ‘that is not my job’ a personal mantra to the detriment of their team and even their own career. Sure, it makes sense to decline a job if you genuinely don’t think you’re qualified to do it or if you think your input will do more harm than good. But, in reality, this response usually stems from either a sense of indignity (i.e. why should you have to pick up the slack?) or lack of ownership (i.e. if you don’t do it, someone else will. Right?) Wrong.
Eradicating this attitude from yourself or your team can be tricky. It requires understanding where it comes from, learning tactics for reframing, and forming better strategies for saying ‘no.’
That is not my job: why people don’t help out
Sometimes, there are legitimate reasons not to lend a hand. And then there are emotional knee-jerk responses that stem from a deeper sense of career dissatisfaction. Here are some of the most common culprits:
1. They’re not engaged in their job
You’re simply clocking in and out. You dread Mondays. You can barely pay attention in meetings. If this sounds like you, then it’s either time to find a new job or chat with your boss about career development and opportunities.
People who feel engaged are far more likely to help their colleagues and accept challenges that are outside their purview. They’re more focused on the greater vision of the company than their individual tasks.
2. They don’t actually know what their responsibilities are
If your role isn’t clear, then you may be tempted to reject job requests based on a hunch. After all, you don’t want to tread on anyone else’s toes.
If you’re unsure, chat with your manager and ask them to define your responsibilities more clearly. You’ll not only have more direction, but you’ll also be in a better position to reject or accept requests.
Having a clearly-defined role also helps your colleagues know when to turn to your – meaning the requests coming your way will be more relevant.
3. They have too much work
It’s completely fair to turn requests away if you have more urgent things to deal with. But rather than responding with a dismissive ‘that is not my job’, offer to help your colleague out after you’ve finished whatever it is you’re working on. They’ll really appreciate the compromise, and you get to show you’re going above and beyond what’s usually expected of you – which makes you look awesome.
4. They’re a social loafer
Social loafing is when a team member doesn’t bother working as hard because they assume someone else will pick up the slack. It can really damage productivity, especially if it’s widespread across a company.
If you’re in charge of a team, then setting clear goals and assigning responsibilities can give team members purpose and accountability. If you think you may be guilty of social loafing, try repositioning your attitude: instead of thinking ‘it’s not my problem’, use the much more empowering phrase ‘I won’t do nothing.’
When a request comes your way, make it your mission to do something – even if that’s just referring it to a more qualified person.
5. They lack confidence
Say you spot a typo on your companies website and decide to hop into the post and edit it. You should feel empowered to do this, not scared that a copywriter or marketing manager is going to scold you: in reality, they’ll likely be incredibly grateful you spotted and fixed the error.
Conversely, imagine if you’d decided it wasn’t your job. The error would go unfixed – which could have a negative effect on the business. If you’re really not sure whether you should help or not, at least mention the issue to someone else – it’s better than doing nothing at all.
The benefits of taking ownership
Helping colleagues out not only improves team relationships; it makes you look conscientious and helpful — two qualities highly valued in any workplace. It also gives you the opportunity to expand your experience and gain a reputation for being someone dependable and capable. On a company-wide level, if everyone adopts this attitude then cross-team relations skyrocket, with productivity not far behind.
A better way to say ‘no’
There will be times when you really do need to say a flat out ‘no’ – either because it’s something you can’t do, or you simply don’t have time. Saying no isn’t a bad thing – but it’s essential you take the time to explain why you’re unable to help and offer an alternative.
Instead of evaluating tasks based on how closely tied to your job description you think they are, instead evaluate how capable you are of helping — both in terms of time and expertise. If you simply have higher priority tasks that come first, try saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m swamped with work right now. But if you can wait until tomorrow morning, I’d be happy to help.’ If you think someone else is more appropriate for the request, try ‘I’m sorry, I don’t think I can help you with this one – but if you chat with [insert colleague’s name here], they should be able to lend a hand.’ If you’re often responding to these types of request over your team chat app, try adding an emoji or gif to keep the tone light.
Both scripts sympathize with the asker and say no to the task while helping to find a different solution.
Knowing when and how to say no to requests is a crucial skill to hone if you want to cultivate a collaborative environment at work. A strong sense of collaboration ultimately improves and strengthens relationships within the team. In turn, this makes people more willing to step up and help their colleagues in their time of need.