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4 Words You Should Never Say to Your Boss

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businesswoman covering mouth

Today’s workplace is rife with titles upon titles, and with those wonderful titles comes a neatly defined set of duties we are each assigned to accomplish: “organize this,” “lead that,” “manage them.” Nowhere in your title or set of responsibilities does it say “take out the common room trash,” “clean up the shared kitchen” or “vacuum around the shredder.”

After all, 90 percent of that mess isn’t yours. Why should you be responsible for cleaning it up?

And you’re right. It may not be your job to take out the trash. But “It’s not my mess” can be one of the most destructive mentalities an organization’s culture can have. Why? Because this type of thinking ends up affecting the “real work,” too.

Think before you utter the words “That’s not my job”

This doesn’t only apply to the disgusting excuse for a kitchen and the microwave with spaghetti sauce splatters all over it. “It’s not my mess” can quickly turn into “Why should I help Janice with her project deadline? It’s not my responsibility.” With this type of thought process, not only are we unwilling to take out the trash; we also won’t lend a helping hand to a coworker when it’s needed.

Plus, by telling your boss it’s not your job to take out the trash, you might as well wear a sign around your neck saying “I only care about myself” (made with poster board and markers from the company office supply, because someone who’s too important to take out the trash is also too important to supply their own sign).

This phenomenon has been studied as far back as ancient Greece and was finally coined as “The Tragedy of the Commons” in the late 1960s. Simply put, it means that with respect to shared resources, we all act in our own self-interest. We all have blinders on and can’t see past the next hour when it comes to the expenditure of effort.

Let’s say you’re on your way out the door at the end of the work day, and all you can think of is getting home to play with your dog. As you look at the overflowing trash can by the door, the last thing you want to do is take an extra minute to take out the bag and bring it down to the dumpster.

But ask yourself this: do you like working in a culture where everyone is looking out strictly for themselves, only willing to do what’s explicitly stated in their job duties? What we fail to realize is that our best interest in the long-term is to create an environment where a helping hand is lent freely and accepted with gratitude—an environment where the team thrives even when individuals fall short.

So what can we do to change this mentality?

Noteworthy culture change can start with just the tiniest spark. (Think of a little old lady refusing to give up her seat on a bus, and you’ll get the idea.)

If the trash is full, take it out. If there are coffee grinds all over the counter, clean them up. If Janice needs help meeting her project deadline, give her a hand.

Start helping out beyond the bare minimum that you’re required to do. Take a vested interest in the team’s best interest, instead of the next two minutes of your life. A better team will lead to a healthier work environment and, just maybe, a job you enjoy waking up for every day. (Plus, you’ll become everyone’s favorite coworker.)

Above all else, stop focusing on job titles and their associated duties

It doesn’t matter exactly where you start to shoulder the load, and the organizational culture isn’t going to change with one bag of trash. But with consistency and a couple of minutes each day devoted to helping out the team, you’d be surprised at what can happen.

Be the change you’d like to see in your world.

Ben Drake is an Air Force Officer, grad student and the Communications and Branding Lead at @be_influential. Create your portfolio today and show the world what you have to offer.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

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  • bud

    What happens when you start doing all these sorts of things and people expect you to continue and they get in the way of your normal job. For example, I help people with their computer questions/issues (but not part of IT group). Now they come to me before contacting IT.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=25205518 Ben Drake

      Bud, that’s a tough spot. The (your) problem is IT takes a specific skill-set in order to put in that extra effort. Anyone can clean up coffee grinds, but it takes someone special (a.k.a. not me) to help with IT problems.

      I would say you could respond by saying something like, “Love to help you with your computer issue. What did the IT guys say?” This implies that you expect them to try and work the issue themselves before running for your help. If they reply with, “Oh, I hadn’t contacted them yet. Can you help?” you can reply with the statement of how doing IT’s job is getting in the way of your job… in a non-confrontational tone of course, lol.

      I’d love to here what you think and see if it works out. Thanks for the read and comment.

      • stevedisq

        “I’d love to here” evaporated your credibility Ben. I’m out.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=25205518 Ben Drake

          Ouch! One typo can do that I suppose.

    • KarlRoche

      As Ben said, you need to find ways to help without using too much of your time. How about a tip sheet on how to solve common issues – made once and share.

      • Angie Koponen

        When I worked temp jobs many years ago, I always made a cheat sheet binder for the next temp. Much of what was there could be shared. I would include who’s who, how to’s, and other information to make the temp’s job easier and to eliminate time wasted trying to find answers to common problems. Perhaps today that might translate into a good office wiki in which everyone could contribute and which would be accessible by all, temps included.

        • KarlRoche

          That would be a good way to use a wiki, if a company has them. Sadly they seem to be used to share “official” communications – but that is another conversation.

  • Steve

    When I started my last job, I wanted to succeed and be portrayed as a Team Player, so I would help out any way I can. At the end of each day, I was the one who went from room to room to empty trash cans into a large plastic bag, which I then took to the dumpster. After a few weeks of doing this, management sent an email to the entire office. In the email, they praised me and my help-out-any-way-I-can attitude and asked the rest of the office to share in the responsibility going forward, which they did. I was with the company for 24 years.

    • Angie Koponen

      I’ve seen that kind of helpfulness work both successfully and with unpleasant consequences. So, I believe that one must weigh carefully what can be done with what should be done or not. One must also know how and when to say “no.” Your example is a good one of what can and is okay to do. If being “helpful ” involves doing someone else’s job because they cannot or won’t do it themselves, I would suggest no help, unless it will have grave consequences if it’s not done and has a degree of urgency. In those cases it’s also good to be sure that it the situation is brought up to management in a diplomatic and helpful manner as soon as possible, best before being helpful (if then given the okay) or immediately after if the bad consequences have been avoided. This is where critical thinking skills come into play.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=25205518 Ben Drake

        Angie, no one wants to carry others’ weight, but I’d wager there are few situations where it is not beneficial to help out a coworker, even if it is their job. Might be my military background, but the job has to get done. Helping others along is sometimes necessary and “on-the-job training” is sometimes the only way to bring people along.

  • Deryk

    For the IT industry, this behavior was squashed in the ’90s. Perhaps because it was an immature industry and roles/responsibilities weren’t clearly defined, but generally this is a terrible behavior I agree.

  • http://twitter.com/drewmattison Drew Mattison

    This is the exact opposite of the culture at my company, which is one of the reasons we’ve been successful. We use “How Can I help?” as our four words. @xplane

    You can check out our culture here:

    http://xblog.xplane.com/future-state-mapping-out-xplane/

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=25205518 Ben Drake

      That’s the type of culture people enjoy working in/for!

  • Child_Puhleez

    I was a secretary, and everything got so ridiculous at my job that I had to quit…. 2 days before the nation’s sequester. I was being held responsible for HR taking too long to provide new-hire log-in IDs. I was being held responsible for other dept-heads taking too long to provide application access for new-hires & transfers.

    I called my boss “fucking silly,” and a “fox guarding the hen-house.” I then submitted an 18-hour notice of resignation.

    I’m now self-employed. It’s time. It really was going to be now or never. I’m pulling through, and raising my teenager to never be an employee. I’m teaching her publishing, as I’m about to publish my first book.

    My child will never be anyone’s welcome mat or fall-guy.

  • jdwalker519

    While this is terrible behavior, in the IT field we’re specialized for a reason. No one person can be an expert in everything. In my field, I have a very specific skillset, and the further away I get from that skillset, the harder it’s going to be for me to find another job, should the company decide to part ways with me.

    When the side stuff *becomes* my job, we have a problem. I don’t have a problem helping out, at all. I will help get the overall job done, but when you take away my core tasks to give to someone else, that tells me I’m just a cog in the machine, not a valued member of the team.

  • http://www.facebook.com/me.elliott38917 Megan Elliott

    I’ve worked in both extremes, and the morale in the “help any way you can” office was much happier and more satisfied by far! When I carried over that attitude to a company that didn’t value it, I was viewed with a suspicious eye by everyone in that office before too long. It didn’t do me any favors, but it helped me feel better about myself when I got home at night.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=25205518 Ben Drake

      Were you able to change anything about the culture at the second job?

      • http://www.facebook.com/me.elliott38917 Megan Elliott

        I hope I was, Ben, but while I was there I didn’t see much if any difference. The second job was not open to change nor helpful attitudes and upper management encouraged a cutthroat attitude. Bad research on my end, wasn’t a good fit for my personality!

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=25205518 Ben Drake

          Well at least you were cognizant of this and had the ability to scram! We’d like to think so, but not all businesses are run well. If only we could all work for a great organization.

          • http://www.facebook.com/me.elliott38917 Megan Elliott

            If only organizations were willing to adjust attitudes from the top down. That’s where you need to start the change, but make sure that the middle management also gets the message and conveys it correctly down the chain. A message does no good if it gets stuck. Same with attitudes, make sure they change and translate correctly.

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=25205518 Ben Drake

            Agreed, there has to be buy in throughout the entire org. Top-down initiated change can feel like just another force fed slogan. Bottom-up change can get squashed as soon as it leaves our minion mouths. It takes an entire organization that wants to change and that is ready to take the steps to change before anything can really happen.

            Sometimes I worry too much about trying to save the world (or the organization). Instead this piece was intended more as a reminder to myself that even if I can’t change the entire culture, I can change my culture and hopefully bring a few people with me along the way.

            Thanks for the comments. Fun to engage with like-minded folks!

          • http://www.facebook.com/me.elliott38917 Megan Elliott

            It was a pleasure conversing with you and I look forward to reading more of your musings! Hope you’re able to accomplish your goal!

  • Razwana

    Perhaps a productive way of saying ‘this isn’t my job’ is finding who’s job it actually is?? That’s the point of working as a team, right??!!

  • http://SMMInsights.com/ Jason HJH

    I think if a employee says that, it points to a deeper problem. Either that’s the employee’s personality or the organisation managing employees’ expectations/rewarding them for work correctly.

  • SandyIam

    Truism du jour: “What is appreciated today, becomes expected tomorrow.”

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  • Kym

    Great idea’s but as one who has always tried to be a team player these values only work in a healthy corporation that values all employee’s . Toxic, unhealthy self-absorbed co-workers and /or management cultures that are obsessed with ” the bottom line” clearly frown upon individuals who try to create a climate of change. I was fired from my last position because and I quote ” you are too helpful, we don’t like that . ” Piss poor manager’s who let their ego’s get in the way are vultures.

  • Amanda

    This phrase is one of my biggest pet peeves. As someone who is searching for a new career path trying new things at my current position is a great way to discover new talents and skills and discover what I like (or don’t like).