A decade ago, I responded to an inquiry from a new client who had reached out to talk about being more effective.
During our first meeting, it became increasingly apparent that he was working a lot. At some point in the conversation, we got into detail on his schedule.
He was woking 12-14 hours, most days.
“Most days” meant virtually everyday. Monday through Friday. And Saturday. And Sunday.
On Sundays, he would come in to work for a few hours in the morning, leave to spend time with him family mid-day, and come back to work in the late afternoon.
He wasn’t an executive or even a senior manager. He was a very experienced, individual contributor with a lot of talent. He was also exhausted and close to a breaking point.
As we talked more, I learned that the excessive hours had emerged gradually over a few years. While he had started at the company with a more typical schedule, things kept getting busier.
We discovered that he struggled with putting boundaries on requests. Because of this, others kept asking more. He eventually allowed so much on his plate that he found working 80+ hour weeks almost essential.
What prevented him from pushing back or asking for more resources? He didn’t want to appear selfish by not helping his colleagues.
While not normally this extreme, I see this patten a lot. Many of us justify taking on tons more because we don’t want to be selfish. After all, it’s our job to step in and help, to be a team player, and “support our family” as some organizations say.
This is problematic when it comes from a place of avoiding asking for resources because it seems selfish. Ironically, in attempting to avoid selfishness, we end creating more of it.
Merriam-Webster says that being selfish is:
Lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one's own personal profit or pleasure.
Making a choice to do a ton more for our organization and not asking for the right resources is selfish — because we get the pleasure of avoiding tough conversations and mostly other people pay the price for it in the long-run.
Our family and friends pay a price when we take on tons more work and don’t get a promotion, a salary bump, or more vacation time. Suddenly they get less of us, and nothing else. In the long-run, they lose.
Our organizations pays a price when we eventually feel resentful about all we’re doing for a role without anything in return. This eventually results in our disengagement or departure. In the long-run, they lose.
When we eventually move on from our position, as most of us do, taking on tons more and not getting the right resources means we’ve misrepresented what a typical candidate for our role can reasonably accomplish. When we’re holding a role together through shear personality and willpower rather than the right systems and resources, things fall apart quickly when we’re gone.
Contrary to popular belief, that is not a win. Things falling apart shortly after we leave doesn’t mean we were brilliant. It means we failed to put the right resources in place for the work to be sustainable.
What motivates us to do this then? The selfish the pleasure of being the hero.
There are many, appropriate times in work and life that we all jump in to help. When this comes from a place of transition, margin, growth, or joy, what a wonderful gift to give to others and our organizations.
Let’s just beware telling ourselves that we’re doing the world a favor by not asking for what we need. When there’s full transparency on what resources are necessary to do the job well, we’ll find more happiness over time and the people around us win too.