Recently, several journalists have asked to interview me for articles on work martyrs. The phenomenon is likely as old as time, but currently it refers to the experience when you function in the workplace in a way that sacrifices yourself for the benefits of others – whether it’s other employees, your boss or clients, who you are sacrificing for doesn’t matter.

Here are some identifying characteristics for work martyrs:

  • You are the go-to person for when something goes wrong, someone has to stay late, or there is an emergency project
  • You notice that you are working longer hours than everyone else
  • You have trouble saying ‘no’ even to projects that are outside of your scope of work
  • You’ll fall on the sword if no else does because taking responsibility is important to you
  • You tend to feel like others cannot manage certain things, and as a result, you micromanage or do their work yourself

Sound familiar?

If you have been following my Impostor Syndrome posts, you’ll see a significant connection with work martyrs and Impostor Syndrome. I imagine that this new identification of work martyrs is really people with Impostor Syndrome in disguise.

Often, it can feel really hard to leave this behavior behind, and to try new, healthier behaviors in the workplace that set boundaries and reset expectations for yourself and others. If you have decided that you don’t want to continue in this role at work, then there are simple ways to begin to shed this martyr behavior.

First, find an accountability partner. Whether this person is from your workplace or outside doesn’t matter as much as whether this person will kindly, but firmly, hold you accountable to your goals and keep your confidence. While martyr behavior can place you in the role of star at work with certain bosses, with others it can put you in the position of Gal/Guy Friday and keep you cornered in ways that are perceived as practically ineligible for advancement or promotion.

Second, set some management goals for eliminating the martyring behaviors. For example, it can be as simple as taking a 60 hour work week to 55 hours. You are looking for it to be attainable and to be able to show you proof that it doesn’t change your status at work immediately. So much of the buried fear can be that if you stopped giving so much at work, you will lose your position or favor. If you take really small steps, you will likely realize that not much is changing in regard to perception. After you are successful with a small step, then you can start taking larger, more impactful steps like:

  • Learning to say ‘no’ to certain projects or involvement in activities, especially ones that are low stakes, are not part of your evaluation process, or take you off focusing on your priorities. They are done to obtain favor or please others, but you have to start asking yourself what’s the real impact for me.
  • Stop being people’s emergency go-to. When you are a work martyr, other people’s needs become your own. To break this, you have to learn not to take on other people’s feelings and to set boundaries. You can see and identify someone’s feelings without having to fix them or make them better.
  • Create limited bandwidth at work by having priorities and a plan to work on them, AND others things to do outside of work. If the time for which you have allotted for work can constantly be increased by taking up your personal time because you are not valuing it, then it makes it very hard to set limits. You have to care about and protect your personal time. This might mean that you have to work on creating routines for a personal life that you enjoy and hold sacred.
  • Take only the responsibility that is appropriate to your contribution. While taking responsibility for mistakes, errors, and issues is so incredibly important, when you take all the ownership, you deprive other people of that important experience and learning. You don’t protect them in anyway – except from growth. Now, it’s different if you are a manager and you are providing air cover for direct reports from senior leaders, but if you discover afterward that certain reports need to take responsibility, holding them accountable is part of your managerial responsibilities, especially if you want them to grow.
  • Stop micromanaging your direct reports. Often when you are so stretched for time because you engage in a lot of work martyring behaviors, it can feel very hard to appropriately manage and train direct reports, but as you start to create more time in your schedule, devote some of it to training so that you don’t feel like you need to take over reports’ projects, or that you can’t trust them with certain types of responsibilities into which they need to grow. You can also spend time on developmental coaching so that your reports become stronger and more autonomous.

Creating time for yourself in your work day by doing some of these tasks that I shared above can be helpful in spending more time on tasks related to being strategic in your role, within the organization, or with your long-term professional future. It’s important to note that if you try some of these things to reduce your role as a work martyr, and you get some blow back (i.e., senior leaders are unhappy) you really want to consider if this is a place where you can grow long-term. You need to be able to have the time to be a strategic level thinker to advance and to not be burdened by other people’s tactical work.

What have you done or noticed other people do to reduce the experience of being a work martyr?

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