You’re the one who always has a crowd around you. You get to work first and leave after everyone else. Your colleagues come to you when they need help, either with their own personal issues, a career problem or because they are behind with their work.
Feeling needed is nice, but day in and day out, it can become exhausting and overwhelming. So, how can you lose some of the burden and free up time to focus on your own work? BBC Capital asked experts how to handle life as the office sage, whether you are new to the workplace or a high-level manager.
Lorraine Tilbury, founder of personal and professional development firm HorsePower International, Loire Valley, France
Tilbury advises to draw some boundaries – it’s really important to find your boundaries and learn how to say “no” to the things that you're not obliged to do in your work environment, she says. “If feeling needed by others is an important part of your own sense of self-worth, then it can feel like a very scary thing to do,” she says.
One easy way to practice saying no is to do it in a non-professional, non-threatening setting: a shop, for example. “Request a particular item that you can’t find, or a piece of clothing that you want to try on, and then decline whatever the salesperson comes up with,” suggests Tilbury. “Leave the store without purchasing anything.”
Remember that you don’t have to apologise
Also learn how to say “no” with a smile. Tilbury suggests saying something like: "I really don’t have the time to talk to you right now or to work on that assignment that you’re having trouble with. I need to focus my energy and effort on my own work, project, or assignment." And remember that you don’t have to apologise.
“If your colleagues are used to you jumping in to help, you may have to be consistent and politely – but firmly – refuse more than once,” says Tilsbury.
Katie Denis, senior programme director of Project:Time Off, Washington, DC
Denis advises to gain some new perspective by taking a break: It’s easy to think you can’t take time off because the company won’t function without you. But that is unhelpful if you are trying to spread the workload and gain some independence from needy colleagues.
Taking a holiday is a great way to gain some perspective and get others to take more responsibility, says Denis. And there are a number of things you can do to make it easier. The more in advance you plan your time off, the better, she says. “Set people up for success while you are out. Make sure that they understand when you are going to be gone, how long you are going to be gone, and what needs to happen while you are away.”
Martin Kilduff, organisational behaviour professor, UCL School of Management, London
Research suggests that people who have a lot of colleagues coming to them for advice enjoy both high job performance and career success, according to Kilduff. So being the “go-to” person can have a number of positive effects on your career. But when it gets out of hand, there are steps you can take to slow it down a little and not feel overburdened by others’ personal problems.
Being too willing to engage for lengthy periods of time with non-work-related issues can negatively affect your performance
“Being too willing to engage for lengthy periods of time with non-work-related issues can negatively affect [your] performance,” says Kilduff. So, you’ll need to impose a time budget on these kinds of interactions. “Think about it in terms of holding office hours during which these issues can be resolved,” he says.
Then, think about developing one or two others in your network to take over some of this essential problem-solving work. “In this way, [you] can exhibit skills of delegation and leadership and at the same time maintain [your] central position in the network of influence.”
Mark Kennedy, associate professor of strategy and organisational behaviour, Imperial College Business School, London
Being a problem solver is an important management skill, but senior executives generally do less direct problem solving and more people development, according to Kennedy. “It’s easier to solve today’s problems yourself, but if you keep doing that as you rise, it eventually crushes you,” he says.
“Effective executives — the ones who are good at the job and happy in it — learn to solve problems indirectly by investing in people who will be problem solvers themselves or, even better, trainers and supporters of problem solvers and other trainers of problem solvers.”
Avoid the temptation of easy gratification that comes with solving the problem yourself
But how do you actually do this? “Avoid the temptation of easy gratification that comes with solving the problem yourself,” suggests Kennedy. “Think carefully about the person you’d like to see solve the problem for him or herself. And spend time with that person before the problem, during the problem, and after it. Developing and empowering others works best when the relationship is holistic, not just transactional.”
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