Getting carried away

Avoid taking on the problems of the entire office

You regularly rearrange your already tight schedule, take work home and stay late at the office to drudge through piles of reports. But that’s not the worst of it-the bulk of the work you’re doing isn’t even yours. So don’t be surprised when your well-bottled anger and frustration crystallize. Why? Because doing the work of lackadaisical, excuse-ridden co-workers is not a part of your job description.

There’s a distinct difference between caring enough to help out and taking on someone else’s burden, says Hattie Hill, CEO of Dallas-based Hattie Hill Enterprises Inc., a diversity and customer service training firm. “Carrying [other people's burdens] far exceeds the attention we lovingly give to those around us,” says Hill, who is also the author of a book on this subject, Smart Women, Smart Choices: Set Limits and Take Control of Your Personal and Professional Life (Western Publishing Co., $21).

Hill says “carrying” often surrounds team-based projects. For example, two co-workers go in to work on a Saturday morning to complete a complex budgetary proposal for the following Monday. Two hours into the project, one announces he’s going home, leaving the other to stay even later to complete the task.

If you find yourself repeatedly covering and picking up the slack for others at the office, Hill suggests using these tips to free yourself and begin making smarter choices:

  • Scrutinize your actions. Carriers “not only embrace new challenges, but take on new responsibilities way beyond what is expected of them,” says Hill. For instance, perhaps you constantly find yourself planning elaborate and ornate office birthday parties, even though you never really volunteered for the job. Ask yourself, “What is my motivation? Do I really want to be the designated ‘birthday person’ for the rest of my company days?”
  • Control yourself. When a co-worker asks for your assistance on a project, that doesn’t mean you should-or are expected to-take over. “So often, we become rescuers for people who don’t want to be rescued,” says Rita Bailey, director of the University for People at Southwest Airlines in Dallas. Stripping people of their independence robs them of the right to choose. Identify your role with the understanding that your involvement should only be momentary, not indefinite.
  • Change your expectations. Carriers unnecessarily seek to go “above and beyond” for those around them.

But you can stop the cycle by remaining “consciously aware of slipping into the carrying mode,” says Bailey. After recognizing herself as a carrier, both in her marriage and on the job, Bailey came to a turning point in her life.

Her revelation: “If you don’t give people the opportunity to try things, to fail or to make their own decisions, they won’t grow.”
On occasion-say, for a major project or deadline-you may be called on to do more than your usual part. But in ordinary circumstances your aid should be just that-supporting work already in progress. Before you act on the urge to tackle a co-worker’s workload:

  • Ask yourself if the project is something you really need to do.
  • Ask the person in need if
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