At Work, What Tasks Are “Unreasonable”?
Updated: Feb 24, 2021
In my previous post I had asked “Where do your work expectations come from?”, and discussed “professional identity” as a major part of the answer.
For a quick re-cap, I touched on how we can be torn between two half-truths: that are all people are unique from one another, and that we are all the same (i.e., "XYZ’s behavior is just human nature"). I posited that rather than one or the other of these positions being completely true, we each of have a constellation of identities in our private and professional lives that we share with others in the same role (i.e., father, tax accountant, Floridian). Although we are not identical people to others who share those identities, they create a strong sense of overlap between people, which can lead to a shared sense of what those identities are, how they are likely to be experienced, and what we will do in them.
Professional identity is intimately tied to tasks, roles, and goals. This, is a predominant source of where work expectations come from: Normative experiences of what it is to be a tax accountant, a management professor, a hospital administrator, or Fortune 500 CEO.
Expectations begin being formed in our first role, and in conversations with others within that role. The normative expectations which form our professional identity are then refined by time and experience in that role; and…here’s the kicker… in comparisons we make between different jobs performing that role. So, if you’ve held five positions as a senior financial adviser, you have a pretty well formed set of norms about what it is to be a senior financial adviser. Other senior financial advisors will likely have a very, very similar set of norms, even though you are not identical people.
So, what is an unreasonable task, and how is that related to normative expectations which form professional identity, and to work stress?
Unreasonable tasks are not necessarily “hard” tasks, or having to do something too much, or too often - those are work overload problems. Tasks are unreasonable if they fall outside of normal boundaries of expectations for a given role, or position. For example, a company driver being expected to drive their bosses’ children around town; a surgeon being expected to change bedpans; a paralegal being expected to host a client in place of an attorney. Unreasonable tasks can be above or below your pay grade/training/skill level, or simply something that somebody else in your organization – someone with a different professional identity - should be doing. For example, the nanny (if anyone) should be driving the bosses’ kids around town, not the company driver.
“Big deal”, you might be thinking, “Here it’s all hands to the pump – and we like it that way”. I agree that employees being prepared, happy even, to do what’s needed in a given moment is symptomatic of a good attitude, and of being a real team player. We want people like that, and most of us want to be seen in that light. But what if those expectations are constantly or consistently there, making those tasks part of the norm? And what if this was not the case anywhere else? For example, “it’s only in this firm I’m expected to drive the bosses’ kids around town”. The answer is likely consternation, job dissatisfaction, and possibly the intent to leave the organization (“If I moved there I wouldn’t be expected to drive the bosses’ kids around town”).
I don’t think objecting to a constant stream of unreasonable tasks symbols a bad attitude. After all, everything is about opportunity cost, so every hour spent on unreasonable tasks is an hour away from the core tasks which help us achieve goals – including those set by the organization, and those which are “normal” to a given professional identity. In a real sense, objecting to unreasonable tasks is a sign of caring for your career, and your organization, not the reverse.
So, my question to professionals is “What unreasonable tasks might have crept into your work?”, with follow-up questions of “what (if anything) can you do about them?”, and “how receptive will your supervisor be to removing (or re-allocating) them?”. If you are an organizational leader, my questions are “What unreasonable tasks are you expecting of your charges, and how can they be shaved away in order to reduce unnecessary strain, and possibly a desire to leave your company?”
These questions can take time to answer, not least because they involve understanding professional identity for a given role or position in a normative sense - that is, beyond a single person, or organization. After all, an organization operates in an industry, as part of a wider game, and not in isolation; so normative expectations for a given role, or position should also be considered in a wider context (that is, not in a bespoke way by a single organization). The rewards to organizational leaders for identifying and reducing or eliminating unreasonable tasks are manifold, and you will almost certainly stand out within your industry for doing it.
If you’d like to learn more about professional identity, it’s role in the stress process, and ways to stay on top of it as a professional, or an employer; then register for my upcoming event, “Your Work Stress, and Misaligned Role Expectations”.
Drop me a line if you would like to have a virtual coffee. If you lead a team, or organization I would love to hear where and how you see unnecessary work stress (that is, beyond what you think it should be) come into play, and how it might be costing you. I am all ears and I'm ready to help. Here are some specific ways I help organizations.
In the meantime, you can download my work stress self-evaluation tool here.
Have a great week.
Marcus Fila, Ph.D., is an organizational analyst and industrial/organizational psychologist. He is an associate professor of management at Hope College; and a researcher, speaker, and consultant on work stress. Download his free Work Stress Self-Evaluation Tool.