I recently received some input from a reader that defined the perfect storm of being stuck in the workhorse trap. Here it is:
I’m the workhorse for our volunteer emergency communicator group. There are four of us, but here lately I’ve been the only one answering the calls from the City for severe weather (tornadoes, severe hailstorms, etc.) even in the middle of the night. Problem is, by the time the City gets to me, they’ve already tried the other members with no luck. I’ve said something, but so far no results.
Since lives and property may be at stake, I feel it’s important to have someone doing the job. So, I do it—
But I say something to the rest of the group every time since the 5th time in a three day period– now, it’s been 13 times in a week that we’ve been called and I’m the only one who would answer the call. Okay one guy had surgery twice this week, first on his eye and again on his foot so he gets a pass. But the other two? One is a definite flake and the other… well, I really don’t know.
I’m tired, and we still have more shots at being called again in the next two days. I feel bad saying “NO, SORRY– I can’t” when it’s the City Office of Emergency Management or the National Weather Service, but I might just have to, and tell them that I’m exhausted. After all, we’re VOLUNTEERS!”
First, let’s look at the situation
- THANK YOU. The world is a better place because of people like you that are willing to make personal sacrifice and step up when others need them.
- Many people in their jobs feel like this. They feel they are the only one capable or available to the work. The work must get done, so they do it. Even though lives are typically not at stake, their values won’t let them drop the work.
- In your case, lives are actually at stake! Truly, the work must get done.
- Because you are all volunteers, there is no official way to insist that people do the work.
- You have tried to raise the issue to get the rest of the team to step up to no avail – so you are stuck being the workhorse.
What can be done?
The first point to remember is that even if you can order people around, you are much better off if you can persuade them to be emotionally committed to doing the work. This makes everything better.
Second, it’s important to note that when I talk about getting out of workhorse mode, it is never about abandoning the work. The trick is to figure out how to get the critical work done without doing it all personally.
Sure, sometimes you need to work 24×7 when there is a crisis, a deadline, a big opportunity. The problem arises when that becomes a steady-state way of working.
If you want to get out of workhorse mode, don’t expect your manager to make it better.
YOU need to be the one to invent a new approach to make it better.
Stick to your instincts that this is not right. Devise a plan to change it.
Here are some suggestions to improve the situation: Your desired outcome — Have other people to share the workload with.
There are two basic ways to achieve that outcome:
- Get the people on the team to step up; or,
- Get new people.
Get people on the team to step up
- Record the data about what has happened. Data is not opinion or emotion. It can’t be argued with. Keep a record of all the phone calls that were made and what the response was from each team member. Call a meeting of the whole team and share the data. Ask everyone to comment on it.
- Discuss the team’s desired outcome. What does successful service look like? What will it require? Ask everyone to contribute to the definition of the process and the required commitment and responsibility. Be really clear what the responsibilities are. Ask everyone on the team to talk about their ability to respond to their share of responsibilities.
- Create an actual calendar for who is on-call each day. Set an expectation that if you commit to be on call that you WILL ANSWER. Have everyone sign off on the schedule as a group commitment to one another.
- Be super clear that there are only two choices — sign and commit or leave the group. There is no room for broken commitments when it is a matter of life or death.
If you are afraid of losing people on the team by doing this, remember that the people who are NOT answering the phone on a regular basis are not part of the team anyway. (They shouldn’t get to talk big and pretend they are a volunteer if they don’t do the work.)
They are not helping. Ask them to leave. Get new people who will be committed members of the team.
Get new people
A critical factor of getting out of workhorse mode is making sure that you have a team that is capable of doing the job.
No matter how vital the work is, staying in work-horse mode long term is the wrong answer.
You need to take it upon yourself to create a team or a process that can get the work done that really matters, without burning up your time personally.
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If your current team can’t cut it, you have to change the team.
If you are an individual, you need to influence. You need re-negotiate the work to focus on the most critical outcomes, and recommend a new, better process that achieves the desired outcome in a different way. In any organization, volunteer or business, people get burned out, leave, or have other priorities come up in life.
It is important that you are always cultivating a pipeline of new people that can (and want to do) the job. When you look at the people who are not performing, decide “Can’t or Won’t.”
Can’t you can work with; won’t is not worth the trouble.
Cut them loose. Get people who are motivated to help. That will be your only way out of workhorse mode long term whether you are in a group of volunteers or leading a business team.
What do you think? IF you have any other ideas for this generous and tired emergency response volunteer, please share them!
This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her new book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.