Pro tip | Beware the curse of the competent

publication date: Nov 9, 2020
author/source: Ann Rosenfield

Your boss comes to you - there's a deadline, the project is important, can you please take it on? Or your colleague is on leave, could you please take on their duties as well as your own? Just for now?

Believe me I understand. You want to be a team player. You feel grateful you have a job. You believe deeply in the work of your charity. All of that is important. And, in fact, because you are good at your work, you can actually juggle more responsibility and do it well. 

I call this the "curse of the competent." The only problem is that, while you are working extra hours, you are not getting credit for the great work you are doing. Because, at the end of the day, you will be evaluated on your primary job, not all those extra projects you have kindly agreed to take on.

How do you solve the 'curse of the compentent?" Here are a few tried and true approaches.

Make sure there are metrics 

If you boss is asking you to do extra work, it is completely reasonable to ask how success is measured in this area. A great way to phrase this is "I want to be sure I am doing a great job for you and to make sure we have a shared understanding of what success will be in this area."

Be sure to get these metrics in writing. For example, if you are now suddenly in charge of social media, what metrics define success? Followers? Likes? Comments? Other forms of engagement? By ensuring there are mutual measure of success, you can be sure you get proper credit for your extra work.

Check the time

If you already have a full-time task and your boss is asking you to take on another task, ask them to prioritize what they view are most important. A good phrase can be "I want to be sure we have a shared understanding of the priorities for this role so that I don't disappoint you if I can't get everything done. Here is what is on my to do list for this week. Can you let me know what you view as the highest priority."


Related to the above is the issue of trade-offs. For instance, maybe you have been put in charge of doing a virtual online auction. Do the math on about how much time it will take you to execute the auction and how much you estimate it will reasonably raise. If there is another activity that will raise the same amount of money in less time, or more money, you need to discuss that with your boss. A good way to frame this is "I am happy to do the online auction. I estimate this will take me 5 hours a week for the next month and 20 hours while the auction is running, and 10 hours to courier out the items. I estimate that we will raise $10,000 on this. If I spent 50 hours on major gifts, I am confident I can raise at least one gift of $20,000."

Silver lining

There is one situation where you might want to go ahead and take on the extra work. For instance, say that you a fundraiser are interested in building skills in marketing. If your boss gives you marketing duties, this can be your chance to build your resume in this area to either change your role or build your resume.

In a tough economy it is hard to say "no" to your boss. However, if you let them load on extra work on your plate, you will not be able to give your regular job your full attention or burn yourself out. You may find that all those favours you did for your boss count for nothing because you are only being evaluated on your official job, not all your other duties. 

So take good care and make sure that, in your wish to be helpful and a good team player, you also take good care of yourself.

Ann Rosenfield once held five (5) jobs at the same time. She has learned about the curse of the competent from bitter experience!


Cover image by Zackary Drucker via The Gender Spectrum Collection

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