Having a skill can be hazardous to your career

When you're known for doing something well, colleagues will ask you for help. But say yes too often and you'll be pigeonholed as a low-level worker

Dear Bob ...

I have a reputation here for being a good writer. That's a problem, because I probably get 20 interruptions a week from friends and acquaintances that begin, "You're a good writer. I need to ..." followed by "send an important e-mail," "write a short report," "summarize some information," or some other minor task that involves putting words together in ways that are persuasive and easily understood.

[ More wise work advice on InfoWorld: "Thinking of going into business with a close friend? Think again" | Get sage advice on IT careers and management from Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line blog and newsletter. ]

Then I'm trapped. I'm supposed to be a team player, which means helping out and pitching in. None of the requests are big ... mostly, they're tasks I can knock out in 10 or 15 minutes.

Each.

But I'm also supposed to do my own work, and while I'm not overworked, my manager does give me enough to do that I can easily stay busy without doing work for my teammates they're supposed to be doing for themselves.

Any thoughts on how I can say no without being branded as an unhelpful jerk?

- Unhelpful jerk

Dear Doormat ...

I can think of several. But first, a short essay on why you're right to be concerned:

Businesses are social environments, and business society divides people into two categories: those who delegate and those who are delegated to. Those who delegate are considered upwardly mobile leaders and valuable members of society. Those who are delegated to are considered grunts, the great unwashed, or at best "skilled laborers" who are valuable where they are and should be grateful to have employment.

It's a sad-but-true reflection of modern society that being highly skilled at an identifiable craft is considered a second-rate competency when compared to being a manager. If you don't believe me, listen to a group of business managers grousing because a sports figure makes millions of dollars a year. What's their complaint? Someone has the gall to be paid CEO-level compensation for doing actual, highly skilled work that persuades customers to pay for tickets.

Which brings us to your plight: Your colleagues are, consciously, unconsciously, or as an unintended side effect, trying to turn you into one-who-is-delegated-to and themselves into one-who-delegates.

You're right to understand that Just Saying No is a poor alternative. That's because it's confrontational, which is considered bad form in most business environments.

Here's what you can do instead:

  • Schedule: "I can't get to it today, and tomorrow is pretty full, too. I can help you with this Thursday, if that's OK. And remember the rule around here: If you want a favor, bring Starbucks." This last bit matters because it establishes a value equation instead of your providing a favor now in exchange for the possibility of a quid pro quo in the distant and unspecified future.
  • Quid pro quo: Speaking of trading in favors, you can ask for one in return as a direct swap, assuming the asker is actually good at something. "Tell you what -- I have to create a spreadsheet that does thus-and-such. You're good at Excel. How about you put the spreadsheet together for me while I write the memo for you?" This changes your image from delegatee to skilled, win/win negotiator.
  • Critique: This is a variation on schedule. "I can't get to it today, and tomorrow is pretty full, too. But if you want to write a first draft, or at least an outline of what you want to say, I can squeeze in enough time to mark it up for you." This clearly places you in the management camp of business society, because many -- perhaps most -- managers in far too many businesses consider the important role of "coach" to be synonymous with critiquing the creative work of those around them.
  • Coach: Approach your manager, let him know you're being swamped with writing requests and offer to conduct a series of brown-bag lunches to help your colleagues improve their writing. This lets your boss know what's going on in a politically acceptable way. It shows you to be a team player who wants to help your teammates. It gives your boss a way to put your teammates on notice that they're responsible for improving their skills. Best of all, it puts you squarely in the manager camp, because coaching is something managers do.

Whatever you do, though, don't do a favor now in the hope of having it returned later on. Even more important, don't get trapped by an oddity of human psychology: In general, and for some strange reason, people who are asked for a favor consider the asker to be a friend far more than the person who does the asking.

- Bob

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