We’ve all heard this in the workplace: “It’s not my job”.
This phrase can be frustrating for leaders to hear, but it usually doesn’t appear without a good reason.
In this post, I’ll take a look at some of the common reasons for this statement, as well as some of the ways you might be able to improve the situation.
“It’s Not My Job” Doesn’t Appear Out of Nowhere
When you hear someone say this dreaded phrase, you might have a few common reactions.
Firstly, you might assume the person saying it is not committed to the job. Or, you might believe that they are lazy.
Another common thought is that the person is not a “team player”. That is, they aren’t helpful to you or their team mates.
But this doesn’t come out of nowhere. There is usually a good reason for this phrase appearing. You just need to find out what it is.
I always start with this default when I’m leading people, or working with a leader who is:
People don’t intentionally do a bad job at work, or come in with the intention of making everyone’s life miserable.
That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but I find it’s very rarely on purpose.
With that default phrase in mind, we can try to tackle the situation constructively, rather than dismiss the person’s attitude as being a symptom of laziness or ill intent.
Why “It’s Not My Job” Can Be a Team Killer
So why is this phrase so damaging?
It’s because it goes against teamwork and flexibility.
The workplace can be chaotic and busy. Many leaders are working in situations where there is too much to do, with not enough resources to do it.
As a result, flexibility is key. With a happy, motivated team, you’ll often see team members pitching in to help others when it’s needed.
When we see the “it’s not my job” mentality come out, this can be a sign that all is not well in the team. Instead of pitching in, people are refusing to help.
When your team has a degree of flexibility, greater resilience exists. If workloads increase, people spend additional effort to pick up the slack.
Without this teamwork gaps can appear, and certain people may become overwhelmed while others maintain their regular workload.
This additional flexibility also helps with emergencies, where unexpected events occur that need to be taken care of.
What’s Behind the “It’s Not My Job?”
Remember our default position, that people don’t come to work to do a bad job, or make your life difficult?
It’s important to keep an open mind if you hear this (or a similar) phrase.
Sure, we can blame the team member for saying it, but instead of this, let’s look at some of the potential causes.
Cause #1: Feeling Undervalued
First on the list is team members feeling undervalued, or unappreciated.
If they don’t feel like they are being appropriately recognised or appreciated for their efforts, they may be thinking “Why would I bother?”
Over time, this can build into a smouldering resentment which could have them being less than helpful to your team.
This is even more likely if they feel they have been putting in extra effort that has not been recognised. If they believe they have been going over and above for you, then they’ll be expecting some sort of recognition.
This recognition may also be compared with others in the team. If a team member feels they have been working just as hard as others who have been recognised in some way, you may have an “it’s not my job” coming.
Learn More: Do Your People Care About Your Team Rewards?
Cause #2: Lack of Fairness
Sometimes I see an “it’s not my job” occur because of a perceived lack of fairness.
This often shows up when a team member believes they are doing more work than other colleagues, or shouldering more responsibility, for little reward.
The solution in their mind is to pull back on their effort, to equalise the situation.
Unfortunately, nobody benefits from this, and once again we can see a growing resentment if the situation continues.
Cause #3: Lack of Motivation
Another potential source of the “it’s not my job” is a lack of motivation.
A lack of motivation can have many causes, but in the case of “it’s not my job”, I feel the cause is often due to problematic “hygiene factors” which can develop into resentment or apathy.
Hygiene Factors and Motivation
When it comes to motivation, hygiene factors are those that reduce motivation and job satisfaction if they aren’t present or adequate.
However, the catch with these factors is that just having more of them does not result in higher motivation. They only really get us to a baseline level of motivation, rather than one which will see us going over and above.
Some examples of hygiene factors include salary or a poor work environment.
People who believe they are underpaid are unlikely to spend extra effort to help others. Instead, you might find them using the phrase “it’s not my job” until they feel they are compensated fairly.
“Over and Above” Motivators
Other than the hygiene factors, there are those that will push people to higher levels of performance by adding them to the work environment.
For example greater autonomy, a sense of purpose, meaningful work and developing new skills are several factors that often result in greater levels of motivation, as long as we satisfy the hygiene factors first.
Without any of these in place, you might find that people will show up for work, but fail to put in extra effort or show the willingness to pitch in and help others.
Learn More: 4 Types of Motivation to Look For In Your Team.
Learn More: Motivate Your People Using These 3 Levers.
Cause #4: Self-Preservation
We’ve all heard many stories of burnout, stress and fatigue.
A fairly recent phenomenon resulting from this is the rise of “quiet quitting”. This is essentially people putting in just enough effort to do their job, but holding back from going over and above.
In other words, they’ll go home when the work is done, but won’t do more than required.
I believe this has a lot to do with self-preservation. That is, people understand their limits and realise when work demands are becoming too high.
They pull back in an effort to safeguard their own wellbeing and to cultivate a sense of work-life balance.
If overwhelming workloads are the norm in your team, you could find some team members pulling back from additional work by playing the “it’s not my job” card.
And who can blame them?
Cause #5: Lack of Skills
If someone is refusing to do a task, it could be down to a lack of confidence to actually do the work.
It may show up as unhelpful behaviour, but is it actually because the person feels they might fail?
Instead of admitting they don’t know, some team members may feel ashamed that they can’t perform the work you need them to. Hiding the problem is regarded as better than admitting fault in their eyes.
The question to ask yourself is, is your team environment one where people feel they can admit mistakes? Or one where they need to be covered up?
So What Can You Do About “It’s Not My Job”?
Based on the causes above, you can probably sense a few of the potential solutions.
It’s pretty obvious.
Where there is a lack of motivation, you increase the motivational factors for the team member.
Where there is a lack of fairness, you address the imbalance.
For a lack of skills, you can help them to learn.
What isn’t obvious is the actual cause of the problem.
So how do you find out? Usually, it starts with a conversation.
How to Have a Conversation About “It’s Not My Job”
To find out more about the problem, you need to speak to your people to work out what’s really going on.
The starting point is the preparation for that conversation. To prepare:
- Gather the evidence. What have you noticed that is giving you cause for concern? Is it a change in the person’s behaviour? A lack of effort? Tension between team members? Or performance data that shows a decline in results? Whatever it is, you’ll need this to credibly begin the conversation.
- Let go of your frustration. It’s tempting in these cases to blame the team member for being lazy or uncommitted. Before starting the conversation, attempt to calm your emotions and keep an open mind.
- Be prepared to hear things you don’t like. Having these conversations can open you or the team up to criticism. But remember, the team member is not to blame. Their response may be quite natural from their perspective.
How to Start the Conversation
Start by mentioning what you have observed – what you’re noticing that is concerning you.
Reduce the blaming language. Instead, frame your concerns and take responsibility for them:
“I’ve noticed recently that you’ve pulled back from <some work> and I’m a little concerned because normally you’re one of the ones who helps out. What’s your perspective on this?”
Then sit and listen to what they have to say.
Work with them to identify potential solutions that could help the situation.
Make it less about you, and more about helping them.
“It’s Not My Job” is Natural Behaviour
I believe that in many cases, “it’s not my job” is simply a symptom of a problem and natural behaviour for a team member who feels they aren’t getting what they deserve.
It’s worth taking the time to consider their point of view, and seeing if you can turn a “not my job” into a “happy to help out”.
Have you come across “it’s not my job”? What did you do about it? Join the conversation in the comments below!