Are you an office “martyr” who works weekends and constantly reminds people about your sacrifice? And without realising it, a workplace jerk who hurts office morale?
I considered office martyrs after reading about Stanford University Professor Robert Sutton’s latest book, The Asshole Survival Guide: How To Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt. He says martyrdom is a factor that encourages leaders to act like jerks.
We’ve all experienced office martyrs: people who work harder and make more sacrifices than their peers – or pretend to – and constantly let everyone know about it. The colleagues who routinely send late-night work emails and go on about how they worked on the weekend.
I was a bit of a martyr early in my corporate career. Hardworking and ambitious, I was at work on Sunday when the boss arrived. I was not shy to send emails at night or weave references to weekend work into discussions with superiors.
It was not malicious. If I was genuinely working on weekends to get ahead, I wanted that effort noticed. That required telling people about it and, for the most part, the strategy worked. Bosses who rewarded staff for extra discretionary hours – rather than encouraging work/life balance – promoted me. Sadly, my weekends died for a flimsy cause.
As a small-business owner, I now find the concept of office martyrdom bizarre. Yet the practice persists: I experienced a martyr this week who went on about his workplace sacrifice – and had been promoted partly because of that discretionary effort.
The truth is, this person is neither productive nor an office star. He just knows how to play the martyrdom game and tell everyone in earshot.
Martyrdom is a challenging management issue. Some martyrs are ideal staff: hardworking, loyal, ambitious and willing to make sacrifices to build businesses. But martyrs can also be deceptive, lazy and untalented. Their skill is office politics.
Those “look how hard I work” martyrs damage organisation culture. Constant talk about weekend or late-night work makes unhinged work/life balance seem the norm; not working in your personal time means you are somehow less committed to the organisation.
Unfair promotion of martyrs is damaging. Over the years, I’ve seen martyrs climb over their peers through politics rather than performance. They went on about how hard they worked compared to others, implying they have lazy peers, and were promoted.
Technology aids martyrdom. It is easier to show the boss you are working on weekends or late at night through well-timed emails – and too many gullible managers fall for it.
And for all the talk about work/life balance, there is still a bums-on-seats ethos in too many organisations. Unless the boss can see you working, in person or electronically, they do not believe you are making enough effort. That dopey approach favours martyrs.
It is time for workplaces to call out office martyrs with two words: “shut up”.
Or, “nobody cares”.
Better still, ask office martyrs why they work weekends and if there is a problem with their productivity or delegation skills. Nothing shuts martyrs up faster than bosses who see through the charade and recognise deeper problems.
Here are nine telltale signs of office martyrs. Add your ideas by commenting on this blog.
1. Time wasters
The classic martyr goes to unnecessary meetings, is easily distracted or slackens off on Friday. Then works on weekends to catch up and presents it as discretionary effort. They become conditioned to weekend work when it is unnecessary.
2. Always look rushed
I’m yet to meet an office martyr who works steadily and calmly throughout the day. Martyrs always look a little frantic, downtrodden and unhappy, as though only they are making the big sacrifices for the firm.
You ask a martyr if they had a nice weekend and they immediately talk about the burden of working Sunday. You say good morning at work and they say they are sleepy from working late the night before. Their martyrdom looms in every conversation.
4. Excessive emailers
Office martyrs love a good email, usually after work hours, to more people than need to receive it. The Sunday afternoon email goes to half the office and is more about showing they worked the day than any real output. Martyrs often reply quickly to emails because they are unfocused and intent on showing how they work hard.
5. Work during sanctioned leave periods
Some martyrs cannot resist checking on work emails and sending a few on holidays. Or pretending to work when they are sick. I know of one who sent work emails during family bereavement leave. They want others to know they are available 24/7 and their managers to plead with them to stop working on holidays. It’s painful.
6. They seek trade-offs
True martyrs work longer hours and make sacrifices, seeking promotions and pay rises in return. The fakers tell everyone about their weekend work, then quietly ask the boss for a day in lieu to make up for it. Their productivity suffers in the long run.
7. Terrible managers
Office martyrs cannot manage themselves, so they have little hope managing others. They set a poor example with work/life balance and expect others to do the same. Good staff do not want to work with them because they will be judged on the wrong metrics. Bad martyrs also have a habit of being office gossips.
Some office martyrs work long hours because they are unsure of their ability and believe that being seen to make personal sacrifices is the best way to keep their job. The strategy only works to a point.
9. No life outside work
I am yet to meet an office martyr who has a fulfilling life outside work. For them, work is life and vice versa. Both inevitably suffer.