When Workload Redistribution = Higher-Performer Punishment

A funny thing happened last week. Not so much funny ha-ha, as much as funny because if I don’t laugh, I’m going to cry.

Our department head informed me he had done a workload distribution analysis, and had determined I could handle writing five more articles per week. That would be on top of my current responsibilities of planning, writing/editing, copy-editing, and doing all graphic and technical work for a weekly online publication all by myself. I responded by letting him know I could write articles for the other publications in our department if they could be easily tweaked to also run in my publication, thereby killing two editorial birds with one stone. I followed up by sending him a day-by-day break down of the tasks I do with my estimation of how much additional time I would have each day to take on more work. That shut him up—for now.

Workload distribution is challenging for a manager. They have to field whining from over-worked employees begging for more help, and then find some other poor soul to shift some of the burden to. In this case, he was hoping I would be that poor, keep-your-mouth-shut-and-your-head-down soul.

Perversely, the reason I’ve been nominated for extra work is because I do my job so well. In eight years I’ve never—not even once, regardless of sickness, jury duty, or even the death of my beloved mother—missed a deadline, or otherwise fallen through on my responsibilities. That sent a signal, not that it was time to applaud and recognize me, but that it was time to pile on more.

Does this scenario sound familiar to you? In the manager and leadership training you do, how do you address workload distribution techniques? For managers, the default move may be to do just what my department head did, and identify a person who is nimbly handling her current workload, even if it’s already a full week’s worth, and then ask her to do more. What’s the alternative to that approach?

I found a business advice page from American Express that makes good points on mastering workload distribution. The writer, Albizu Garcia, CEO, GAIN, offers what NOT to do, identifying the five mistakes managers should avoid when distributing a workload. The first? My very predicament: Not overworking your highest performers. “Almost every team has a star player who is willing to put in extra hours or take on particularly tricky projects. This person tends to be highly reliable, consistently turning out the best work and meeting deadlines, so your natural reaction is to lean on them for any projects that come up,” Garcia writes. “Unfortunately, if you repeatedly take advantage of your highest performers’ inability to say, ‘No,’ their productivity eventually may drop. Not only can they begin to feel overworked and exhausted, but this team member may even come to resent the team for not pulling their weight.”

Unfortunately for my department head, this highest performer is quite capable of setting boundaries and saying no. Are your company’s employees as clear as I am about setting boundaries when necessary? Maybe, in addition to instructing managers and executives on the best, and fairest, ways to distribute workload, there should be boundary-setting instruction for all employees—training on how to say, “No.” It can be frightening in our culture to say, “No,” at work, especially for self-supporting people, who rely on their jobs for their survival. But, as scary as it is, when employees are not taught the freedom to say, “No,” the whole company suffers. Employees end up saying, “Yes,” to work they won’t be able to deliver on, or end up delivering on the work and then quickly burning out and looking for another job. Or they do the work successfully, but are so miserable they look for another job.

Another of Garcia’s mistakes to avoid needs to be amended slightly, I think. He says not to “pile on the pressure for unproductive team members.” He says to carefully observe your employees, and work with, rather than pressure, low-performers. “You may be tempted to put pressure on your lower performers to help them catch up with more efficient team members, but that tactic might be counterproductive. Try to learn where these employees excel, whether it’s social media management or client communications, and shift their workload instead of pushing them harder.” I agree you should shift tasks for employees if those tasks they have been assigned aren’t tasks they are capable of accomplishing. BUT that shift of responsibilities shouldn’t come at the expense of the high performers.

As I write this, I imagine my department head thinking of ways to take leadership and planning responsibilities from me at my publication, and give them to my low-performing editor, while assigning me more grunt work. True, I am more than capable of doing grunt work, but I also am capable of high-level thinking and planning. Should I suffer to accommodate the needs of a person who hasn’t met his responsibilities?

How do you train managers and executives to effectively (and fairly) distribute workload, and to train all employees to set boundaries, so they deliver on everything they agree to do?

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