The job I have at the college is my first full time job after I finished university. Prior to the position I’m in, I have worked only full-time hours on contracts and a smattering of part time jobs. I thought, like many others, coming out of university that I knew what it would mean to have a job, be an employee, and work responsibly. I wouldn’t say I was unprepared to enter the workforce, but it would be charitable to say that I had a lot to learn, and many beliefs to update.
This is, in part, why I decided to occasionally write thoughts in a series of posts loosely connected with the theme “Skills Worth Developing.” There are many hard skills that employees should pick up over time to help them do their jobs better and advance in their careers. Organizations like Coursera, Udemy, Lynda, etc. are excellent resources to help one pick up those kinds of skills. But many other skills (usually dubbed “soft skills”) are usually picked up through experience and self reflection. This blog serves both to force me to write, but also to force me to make permanent any self-reflections I’ve had, and these reflections might be valuable to others.
The last time I discussed Skills Worth Developing, I discussed the merits of storytelling as a communication tool. This time, I want to reflect on a phrase I heard a lot when I first started working – “That’s not my problem” or “That’s not my job.”
You might be wondering why I lump this in with the notion of skills, instead of some other attribute, such as attitude. True, something like this will overlap with one’s “attitude” while on the job, but I view this as a skill because it’s a habit and ability that can be modified over time, practiced, and strategies can be employed to use it in the workplace. Therefore, I loosely connect it under the skills area that should be developed and practiced over time.
One other observation I want to make is that this skill – avoiding falling into the “That’s not my problem” mentality – is something I exercised as a beginner. I think this is a fantastic skill to develop early in your career, but I’m not entirely sure of it’s value when you are well-established in your role. The value of this skill is that it increases your value to the company when you are still differentiating yourself. The same can not be said for someone who is either well-established in their company or field, where their value is tied directly to their ability to focus on problems that they can uniquely solve. In those instances, it’s probably a better strategy to limit distractions from your primary role and duties.
And so, we come to the problem of “That’s not my problem.” I found early on that many employees in a work environment can take on the “not my problem” mentality for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they were burned in the past and now refuse to extend themselves. Some feel overworked and overstretched. Some are lazy. For whatever reason, they resist helping others in their duties.
I find two issues with this kind of mentality. First, it goes against the spirit of cooperation, collaboration, and teamwork. The workplace is a team of employees who are working towards common goals to advance the interests of the organization (while hopefully advancing their own personal interests in parallel). Any time someone says to a coworker “that’s not my problem,” what they are in fact saying is “your problems aren’t important enough for me to take an interest.” They end up placing themselves above the interests of their coworkers and the organization. I’m not saying that this is wrong per se – I am sympathetic to the ideas that this mentality is easy for organizations to exploit, and that there is no moral imperative to place the company’s interests above your own, so you should guard against it taking advantage of you. What I am saying is that taking this as a default position undermines the team. Everyone is supposed to work together to solve problems and strive to the company’s mission. If you don’t want to do that, what’s the point of working at that company? I would hardly think that it’s just in service of the paycheque.
The second issue I have with this attitude is it closes you off to development. I directly attribute my success so far to my willingness to learn outside of my prescribed job. By helping others with their tasks (so long as it does not prevent me from taking care of my own job area), I am able to develop new hard skills and learn about areas laterally and vertically from my position. I am better able to see how my role fits within the larger context of our department, which continuously exposes you to new opportunities for growth and development. You become more valuable to the team and you strengthen your ties with your coworkers. When you are just starting out, this is a valuable way of integrating yourself and setting yourself up for advancement.
When you ignore the impulse to say “that’s not my problem,” you acknowledge that your coworkers are people with their own problems, concerns, hangups and worries, while also setting yourself up as a person of value for the team. It is a perfect opportunity to step up and be noticed in your workplace.
That is why I think resisting the impulse to say “that’s not my problem” is a skill worth developing.