A Bigger Shovel: Six Ways Being Too Good at Your Job Can Hurt Your Career

“…But the reward for lots of work seemed to be lots more. If you dug the biggest hole, they just gave you a bigger shovel.’” – Sir Terry Pratchett, British fantasist.

There’s an old saying that goes, “No good deed ever goes unpunished.” Sadly, that’s often true in business, especially in terms of personal productivity. Like so many other things, high productivity can backfire in surprising ways. I have a colleague who came roaring into a new job, working 60 hour weeks for the first six months, doing his best to impress his superiors. It worked too well. He was their golden boy while overclocking it; but once he’d settled into his job, he cut back to 45-50 hours weekly. Afterward, they treated him like he was slacking, despite consistently exceeding the number of hours his colleagues spent in the office!

While I’d never tell you to actually slack off, it’s best not to consistently give 120%. Not only will you exhaust yourself, you may end up hurting your career in ways you wouldn’t expect. Especially common are the following:

  1. You really will get a bigger shovel. Your reward for digging the best holes often is a bigger shovel, especially when you’ve proven yourself reliable. You end up with more and harder work… and ultimately you may be taken for granted, because your superiors know they don’t have to worry about your performance. In fact, they may become so used to it you won’t come to mind when it comes time for promotions or rewards. Meanwhile, others who seem more flamboyant but less reliable, or who manage one big win or some other way to impress the boss, may move ahead while you stall.

  2. Your superiors assume you can do more with less. This one’s closely associated with #1. After all, you’ve proven your ability to do the job better than others. Some leaders will decide it means you can always do better work with fewer resources, especially time. They don’t get the point that just because you accomplished a miracle once doesn’t mean you can always do it. And then, when you fail because their misguided expectations, you look bad, not them.

  3. You get all the hard jobs, because you’ve proved you can handle them. Your superiors know exactly what they’re doing when they do this, and they’ll tell you so, pointing out that they need their “best person on the job.” Meanwhile, the incompetents get the jobs they can’t screw up. It’s not fair, especially when something goes wrong and you can’t meet expectations no matter how hard you try. But it’s how most many managers play the game.

  4. Your superiors expect you to always put in overtime. After all, you’re paid a salary, so why not put in 60-hour weeks every week? This begs the question of how much you can accomplish before you burn out, and realistic managers won’t push you until you break. But they might let you do it to yourself. And when you slow down to normal for your own health and sanity, it looks like you’re slacking off (see above).

  5. You become indispensable. The boss doesn’t want to lose you, because they just can’t do the job as well (or sometimes, at all) without you. They may even offer you repeated raises in hopes you’ll never leave. That’s fine if you want to stay in the same job forever, because an indispensable worker doesn’t get promoted. If you do want to move up the hierarchy someday, take care here.

  6. Your colleagues feel resentful. The person I discussed in the intro had this happen too. At one point, a friend advised him that, because he never seemed to leave his cubicle, his coworkers felt he was “making them look bad.” They were actually making themselves look bad, of course, but as always, perception trumped reality. If you care what your co-workers think, this may be one reason to ease off the throttle.

No Good Deed…

Sometimes, dealing with the politics of the workplace makes you feel like an octopus on roller skates. There are so many ways to go wrong, even when you’re trying to do well, work hard, and impress the people in charge. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; just realize some people will either find a way to be unhappy with you, or take advantage of you. French clergyman and politician Cardinal Richelieu once said, “Give me six lines written by the most honorable of men, and I will find an excuse in them to hang him.” People like Richelieu will always lurk in your workplace; your job is to avoid or ignore them.

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

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