A Worker’s Nightmare: When the Reward for Good Work is More Work

When Good work Results in More Work

I went to high school with an interesting character. He was funny, smart, and never missed an opportunity to tell anyone who’d listen that he was a distant relative of the Queen of England. He had funny quotes he’d often repeat and one that stuck with me was, “too good is no good.” He explained that if you are too good at what you do, you’ll be difficult to replace so you’ll never get anywhere. I didn’t think much about this until years into my professional career.

I am a hard worker and have always prided myself on being able to handle an incredible amount of work. However, from early in my career, I found that the more work I completed, the more I received until my full plate turned into a buffet table. As I gained experience, credibility, and trust, my efforts didn’t go unnoticed. I was given new opportunities and responsibilities, but nothing was ever removed from the buffet table. It was a backhanded compliment, and I didn’t speak up out of concern that new opportunities would stop coming my way. That’s when it hit me, too good really is no good.

There is another saying and it’s “if you want something done give it to the busiest person.” It’s easy to understand why a manager would want a high performer to take on more work. However, from the employee’s perspective, the nature of the work to be done is critical. If it’s likely to result in advancement, then being a go-to person can be a good thing. Unfortunately, many times it’s not that kind of work. Even worse is that the latter situation is more likely to occur to women than men. A 2018 Harvard Business Review article explains that “non-promotable” tasks are often things that benefit the organization but don’t help the employee with career advancement. Examples include organizing the team holiday party, providing back up for a colleague (e.g., parental leave), participating in a low-ranking committee, or taking on additional tasks that don’t require a sophisticated skillset. Women are often the ones assigned these non-promotable tasks because they are more likely than their male counterparts to volunteer or say yes when asked.

When the reward for good work is more work, it can be demotivating and feel like a punishment. It can also create the perception that poor performers are allowed to do less, leading to friction between employees. There may also be other consequences like burnout, a topic that’s top of mind for many. Something has to give to accomplish the level of work the employee is expected to complete and that “give” is often the employee working extra hours, putting their own needs or the needs of their family on the back burner, and creating stress that can have negative mental, emotional, and physical consequences. Unfortunately, if an employee isn’t having honest discussions with their manager, the manager may wrongfully assume that no feedback means everything is ok.

The new year presents an opportunity for leaders and managers to rethink how assignments for top performers are awarded. The following tips provide a starting point:

  1. Consider the goal of the assignment. Is it something that takes a lot of time but doesn’t provide an opportunity for growth or development? If so, this may be a project to assign to someone else on the team. If it’s essential this employee complete the assignment because of their expertise, discuss with them tasks or responsibilities currently on their plate that can be assigned to someone else. This may have the added benefit of providing a learning opportunity for another employee.
  2. Provide stretch assignments that matter. Reward the employee with a stretch assignment that raises their visibility with others in the organization, especially senior leaders, or other teams the employee may not interact with on a regular basis. This provides a different level of recognition and allows them to build cross-departmental relationships. It may even provide an opportunity to find a mentor who can offer guidance, motivation, career exploration, and help with setting goals and developing their network. This can be especially useful if the organization doesn’t have a formal mentor program.
  3. Engage in regular, ongoing discussions. These conversations can focus on current responsibilities, learning opportunities that are of interest, and more. An employee may not feel they have the control or authorization to address their workload. By conducting regular discussions with employees, you will gain a better perspective of what’s on their plate, stretch assignments that would be a good fit, and how to help the employee find the time to engage in higher level assignments.
  4. Don’t assume. Employees don’t always speak up and even when you engage in regular discussions, they may not be completely open. Don’t assume everything is ok. Ask powerful questions that can help you assess and support the employee’s current situation. This can include questions regarding the manageability of the workload, growth opportunities they are interested in, tasks they are responsible for that could be delegated to someone else, tools or resources they need to complete their work, and other matters.

At EllieBlu HR we understand that to retain high performers, employers need to reward and engage them more effectively. If you’d like to learn more about how we can help you help your employees, while improving performance and results, contact us at asarver@elliebluhr.com.