The harsh reality of shared work

When I graduated from university, I could not wait to work on a team. I felt too new and inexperienced in my clinical abilities to work solo. I still consider myself fortunate to work on a team with (mostly) like-minded and committed individuals; I have learned much from my coworkers. However, over the last three and a half years I have, at times, found working closely (daily) in a team challenging and frustrating. As anyone who works in teams knows, it’s not always easy, and it sure ain’t always pretty.

I recently came across a post from Gretchen Rubin’s blog The Happiness Project (by the way, if you have not yet read her same-named book you really must!) where she outlines and explains seven painful facts about shared work. In reading, it occurred to me that I have been thinking of teamwork in an idealistic and perhaps unrealistic way. To read her full blog post, click here. But fear not! Her list resonated so deeply with me, I have listed the seven facts below:

Fact 1: Work done by other people sounds easy
This perception often leads us to under-estimate how difficult a task may be when done by others, so we don’t bother to offer to help or share the responsibility. 

Fact 2: When you’re doing a job that benefits other people, it’s easy to assume that they feel conscious of the fact that you’re doing this work—that they should feel grateful, and that they should and do feel guilty about not helping you.
The more reliably you perform a certain task, the less likely it is for anyone to notice that you’re doing it, therefore they won’t feel any gratitude or impulse to help. Others begin to view this as your job since you’ve been reliably doing it for some time. In fact, Gretchen states that being taken for granted is an unpleasant but a sincere form of praise… “Ironically, the more reliable you are, and the less you complain, the more likely you are to be taken for granted.”

Fact 3: It’s hard to avoid “unconscious overclaiming.”
We tend to overestimate our own personal contribution compared to the contribution of others. We also are more likely to do work that we value, which may differ from what others (colleagues, spouses…) value. 

Fact 4: Taking turns is easier than sharing.
Sharing is ambiguous; taking turns is clear.
I would add that shared responsibility means no one is responsible. It really takes someone “in charge” of ensuring the job gets done. That person does not need to do it all, can and should delegate tasks to others, but there needs to be someone overseeing the task. 

Fact 5: The person who cares the most will often end up doing a task.
You thinking a task is important doesn’t make it important to others, and people are less likely to participate in work they consider unimportant. 

Fact 6. If you want someone else to do a task, DON’T DO IT YOURSELF. 
Gretchen addresses the issue that while this sounds so obvious, most of us actually don’t do this. Someone else might (and is more likely to) do a task if you don’t do it first (although she does say to refer to Fact #5). Of course, sometimes we cannot afford the luxury of waiting…some tasks must be dealt with immediately. 

Fact #7: If, when people do step up, you criticize their performance, you discourage them from doing that work in the future. If you want others to contribute, don’t criticize from the sidelines. If so, they might feel it is easiest to leave that task to you…

Reading Gretchen’s post was a liberating experience. I believe that not only have I been incorrectly (and naively) thinking about the concept of teamwork (Fact 2 & 4), but I have also been ignoring the impact of my actions on the functioning of the team (Fact 6 & 7). I think maybe I should print out these facts and tape them to my desk so I can re-read them from time to time (or every day…) for a refresher. Hopefully, accepting and applying these truths about shared work will help me appreciate the benefits of teamwork while at the same time clearly seeing it’s limitations and knowing how to approach said limitations. I’m no saint, so I will probably continue to get annoyed and want to scream/pull out my hair/throw things from time to time, but I hope to retain my sanity at work a bit longer 🙂


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