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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

Here's a Better (and Less Whiny) Way to Say "That's Not My Job"


Imagine this:

You play professional soccer and your team’s reached the semi-finals. With two minutes left in the game, you’ve somehow ended up in front of your team’s net. An opponent’s winding up to shoot, and your goalkeeper’s nowhere close to where he should be. In fact, there’s no way he’s going to get back in time, meaning you’re the only one standing between the enemy and the goal. Which of the following do you choose to do?

  • Prepare to stop the shot, no matter what.
  • Shrug and walk away, allowing your opponent to basically dribble into the goal. After all, you’re not the keeper, so it’s not your job to stop the ball.

I’m willing to bet you’d choose the first option (unless you’re secretly conspiring against your team).

Now let’s change the scenario a bit.

Your co-worker has a time-sensitive report due to one of her clients by the end of the day. But due to competing priorities, she doesn’t have the time to complete it. Frantically, she turns to you and asks if you can do her a solid and finish it up for her. What do you do?

Do you find a way to help her out, or do you shake your head no and mutter under your breath something along the lines of “It’s not my job to finish deliverables for your clients.”

Though a trip to the championship game isn’t on the line here, the integrity of your team member (and your company) is. Yet, I’m guessing that in this situation, you at least leaned toward the second option—if not settling on it as your final decision altogether.

“It’s not my job” has become a phrase commonly used in the workplace. But that doesn’t mean it should be. Sure, this attitude may help you avoid doing extra work, but it’ll probably also prevent you from advancing in your career since you’ll be labeled as someone unwilling to go above and beyond. Not to mention, it could also get you labeled as lazy and unaccommodating (say goodbye to your happy hour invite).

But—hold the phone a second—just because I’m saying you shouldn’t make regular use of those four words doesn’t mean I think you should always say yes and automatically pick up the slack for others. What I am saying is that, rather than letting these words slip out of your mouth, you should learn how to say yes or no in a way that works for both parties involved.

Instead of “No, That’s Not My Job”

Try: “I’d Like to Help Out, But I Don’t Have the Capacity Right Now.”

You most likely have a lot on your plate, too. So taking on someone else’s project without a second thought could end up negatively impacting the final product of both your work and your colleague’s. It’s not actually helpful if you do someone’s work poorly for them. And sometimes, it helps soften the blow if you remind the asker of this fact.

But what if you’re not sure?

You need to be honest with yourself about your workload in order to avoid taking on too much. It’ll be worth the couple minutes it takes to step back and see what needs to be prioritized before answering. (And yes, you’re allowed to ask for those few minutes to look at your schedule.)

Maybe you do have a lot on your to-do list, but some of your tasks are able to be pushed back a couple days. If you’re having trouble figuring this out, ask your supervisor if there’s anything you can deprioritize in order to help your teammate out. (Think of all the brownie points you’ll get in your boss’ eyes when you ask how you can best assist a team member!)

And if you don’t have the capacity (which is 100% fine), you can still help by pointing your colleague to either another person who may have some free time or a video that can help him learn that pesky Excel formula that’s holding him up.

Just know this: You shouldn’t ever lie if you really do have free time. Others will (eventually) catch onto that and start to see you in a negative light. Not to mention, you’re far less likely to get a yes when you come around asking for a similar favor a few weeks from now.

Instead of “Yes, Let Me Drop Everything”

Try: “How Can I Help [Within This Time Frame]?”

Great news for your co-worker—you do indeed have some time to help out. And you should. Your associate’s success ultimately impacts yours and the success of the company. (Plus, you’re a nice person, right?)

With that said, you still do have your own to-do list to work through and you don’t need to toss that aside completely. Instead, by asking “How can I help right now/today/at 3 PM today/for a few hours this morning?” you’re prompting her to give you a specific task—opposed to say, a 10-minute venting and “thank you so much!” session followed by him or her telling you that “Whatever you can take would be amazing.”

Plus, as Muse writer Jessica Kleiman says, “If you want to be seen as a team player (and someone who cares about his or her own career growth), you need to take on new responsibilities—even if it’s not entirely in your wheelhouse. Hey, you may learn a new skill and even find that you enjoy something you never thought you would.”

Bottom line: If you find yourself saying “It’s not my job,” or “It’s not my responsibility,” stop—it’s a horrible tagline to have. It automatically sends the message that you’re not willing to go above and beyond.

Again, you shouldn’t get into a situation in which you’re taking on all of your teammates’ tasks (on top of yours) on a regular basis. If it comes to that, then it’s time to have a conversation with your manager.

But, next time a co-worker requests your assistance, ask yourself: Am I going to walk away from my team, or am I going to jump in front of the ball and save the game?