You don’t always have to raise your hand

When I was raking leaves in our front yard at six years old, my grandfather rested his large, heavy hand on my shoulder and said, “I like that you’re a hard worker and that you never quit.” I adored him, so his comments warmed me while we were outside in what I’m sure was 55-degree weather. More than three decades later, that South Dakota memory remains vivid, which illustrates how much his philosophies continue to shape my life.


During my early 20s, I was the sole employee of a weekly newspaper in the Black Hills. I created story ideas (and assigned the stories to myself); photographed events; sold advertisements; tracked new subscriptions; designed the newspaper; and yes, delivered the newspaper to area businesses. The newspaper publishers, who lived in a nearby town, learned I was staying up all night to complete these tasks. One evening, they knocked on my apartment door and asked me to consider a reporter role at one of their other newspapers. I was horrified. I asked, “You want me to QUIT?!” They responded, “We don’t want you to quit; we want you to try an easier job. We think maybe you don’t have enough experience for this job. You’re young, and this is a big role.”

I convinced them I could do the job well. And I did. I also volunteered for additional duties, wanting to prove that I was a hard worker. For example, I began tracking my office’s copy machine revenue. Every time someone entered our office to make a copy, I got up from my desk, stopped writing, accepted their coins, and recorded the income. After two years at that weekly newspaper, I felt so physically drained, I immediately accepted an offer for a reporter position at a large daily newspaper.


Reflecting on that time, I should have asked the publishers for a full-time assistant. However, I wanted to prove that I could succeed and most importantly — not be a quitter. If I had received even part-time help, the quality of my stories, newspaper design, and my photos would have been better. A more reasonable workload would have allowed me to focus on substantive work that would have improved my skillset and, subsequently, my career.


I want to write that I immediately altered my work philosophy to incorporate more focus. However, it took me several years to learn how to prioritize my work tasks. About 10 years ago, I asked one of my female mentors how she achieved such significant milestones. Her accomplishments appeared in an annual report and, thus, were widely known. She told me she began each morning with a post-it note that contained four primary goals for her day. If she received non-urgent phone calls or emails that did not pertain to one of those four goals, she saved them for a different day or delegated the work. I now use that same tactic.


Many of us want to be team players, so when our managers ask for volunteers—even when the assignment is significantly below our skillset or is time-consuming—we want to help. And by “we,” I mean women. Upon realizing that female professionals volunteer more than their male counterparts, three notable social scientists conducted several experiments to determine why and how this happens. The researchers discovered two trends: managers ask women to volunteer for extra duties more than they ask men, and when managers ask women, women are much more likely to agree.


These extra assignments are “non-promotable” tasks that benefit the company but not necessarily the individual who works on them. These tasks might be cleaning the office breakroom, organizing birthday celebrations, or serving on a committee whose work is rarely noticed by the administration. Why does this matter? Non-promotable tasks can result in serious ramifications for women. These tasks have minor visibility, which hinders career advancement and performance evaluation, and they detract focus from the employee’s more essential work.


The researchers concluded that although neither men nor women want to volunteer for undervalued tasks, women continue to volunteer more, are asked to volunteer more, and accept requests to volunteer more. There seems to be a shared belief—among both sexes—that women will volunteer more than men. One experiment revealed that in a group of men and women, men did not immediately volunteer, while the women did. However, in single-sex groups, men and women volunteered equally.


So, what is the solution? Should we start declining all additional work requests? No. Should we volunteer for extra, non-promotable duties in the name of working hard? No. We need to focus on our priorities, and when asked to assume additional work, communicate those priorities with our supervisors. In addition, management should distribute the extra work equitably and consider rotating those assignments among all employees.


Saying “yes” to non-promotable tasks may mean saying “no” to your professional aspirations. Be mindful of your workload and seek assignments that align with your expertise and your passion. That combination benefits both you and your company, allowing you to work hard for your organization and yourself.

Originally published in Bayou Life Magazine.

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