Remember when you were in high school and you were assigned those obnoxious group projects? Well, I was the girl who you crossed your fingers and hoped would be assigned to your team.
I’d come swooping in with my detailed timeline, my color-coded binder, and my already thorough background research and ensure that you had to do almost no work of your own. I’d rather have total control and do most of the project myself—which meant the rest of my team could sit back and soak in the glory of an easily-earned good grade.
That attitude followed me well into adulthood, and I’d often excuse that tendency as a positive trait. I’m being a team player, I’d think to myself. This just proves that I’m a real go-getter. I’m a “get things done” kind of girl and people appreciate it.
But, it didn’t take me long to realize something: There’s a pencil-thin line between taking initiative and simply being taken advantage of. Your desire to knock things out of the park makes it easy for your colleagues to not pull their own weight.
Are you currently stuck in this situation yourself? Well, my fellow doormat, allow me to elaborate on some hard-won do’s and don’ts that have helped me position myself as someone with initiative—without being a total pushover.
Do Offer Your Help
Your co-worker is stuck on their portion of a project and wants your guidance in getting over that hurdle. They know that you have the expertise to help them get that figured out.
You can absolutely be a team player and offer your advice. There’s no need to turn that person away with a curt, “Do your own job” type of response (unless you’re really aiming to make some new enemies in the office).
But Don’t Just Take Over
Remember, there’s a big difference between helping someone figure out the best way forward and taking charge and just doing the entire thing for them.
It all goes back to the classic “teach a man to fish” proverb. Make sure you show your team member your process, so that they’re empowered to do that on their own in the future.
Would it be faster for you to just handle it yourself? Probably. But, that also means you’re putting yourself in a position to always be the one to have to handle that task.
Do Your Best Work for Your Team
You pride yourself on your top-notch work—and that’s a great thing.
Not wanting to be taken advantage of shouldn’t mean having to lower your own standards and churn out lower-quality results, just so you don’t make yourself look like an easy target to the rest of your group.
But Don’t Repeatedly Cover for Others
While it’s fine (and even encouraged!) to help your colleagues improve upon their own work from time to time, that doesn’t mean you should repeatedly step in to cover for other people’s shortcomings.
If your co-workers are starting to get a little lax about a shared project and are only doing half of what was expected from them or are turning things in late, get your portion done to the very best of your ability—and then resist the urge to charge in and clean up their messes.
When your boss or another department is wondering why a certain piece is missing or totally lackluster? Well, you held up your end of the bargain. It’s up to your team member to explain why his own portion isn’t completed.
Do Make Expectations Clear
Your team isn’t full of a bunch of mind readers. And, if you’ve already set the precedent that you’ll be the one to grab the reins and get everything handled, that can be a tough reputation to shake.
That’s why you need to focus on being a little assertive and making expectations for shared work painfully clear. Everything from timelines to roles to individual action items should be obvious to your team members, so there’s no doubt about who’s responsible for what—and when it needs to be completed by.
But Don’t Volunteer to Do it All
You’ve mapped out all of the different tasks that need to be handled in order to complete that team-wide project. You ask your group who’d like to take the lead on what, and you’re met with nothing but the chirp of crickets.
Resist the temptation to jump up and volunteer to handle an unfair load of work. Choose a reasonable amount of tasks for yourself, and then remind your team that the rest of them need to be covered.
If you continue to shoulder all of the burden yourself, your colleagues will never feel the need to add some of those assignments to their own plates.
I can totally understand the urge to be the always-dependable overachiever of the group (believe me, I’ve stood in those shoes for the majority of my life).
However, always being the one to get things done—regardless of the contributions of the rest of your team—also puts you in a position to repeatedly be taken advantage of.
Keep these do’s and don’ts in mind the next time you’re working with your team, and you’ll still be able to take initiative and produce work you’re proud of—without magically transforming that group project into a one-person show.
Photo of group in meeting courtesy of Thomas Barwick/Getty Images.
Kat is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, productivity, and the freelance life. In addition to The Muse, she's a contributor all over the web and dishes out research-backed advice for places like Atlassian, Trello, Toggl, Wrike, The Everygirl, FlexJobs, and more. She's also an Employment Advisor at a local college, and loves helping students prepare to thrive in careers (and lives!) they love. When she manages to escape from behind her computer screen, she's usually babying her two rescue mutts or continuing her search for the perfect taco. Say hi on Twitter @kat_boogaard or check out her website.More from this Author