Two Points about Illegitimate Tasks, Burnout, and Working Relationships

People enjoy contributing to their workgroup’s mission. If this attitude is unusual in your workplace, it may reflect some serious shortfalls in how people are recruited or managed in their work. Despite a general willingness to participate in the workgroup’s success, people feel annoyed by illegitimate tasks.

According to Norbert Semmer, people feel tasks are illegitimate when they’re unreasonable or unnecessary. Unreasonable tasks might reflect a mismatch of demands with employees’ abilities. People doubt the legitimacy of work that is outside of their professional role. Task seem illegitimate when the work assignments fail to match with employees abilities. The problem is equally relevant when people are assigned work that is too advanced for their skills and when it is too rudimentary for their experience. Surgeons grumble when they have to do routine paperwork. New hires may feel overwhelmed when they confront expectations beyond their abilities. Undue constraints on performing tasks challenge legitimacy: organizational policies that make travel more difficult and expensive feel illegitimate.

Unnecessary work doesn’t need to be done at all. Make work projects or work that is poorly organized can waste employees’ time and energy in ways that prompt resentment. Dedicated employees resent wasting their time.

Poor working relationships are a special sort of illegitimate task. People sometimes make unreasonable demands. They may impose upon others to request or even to demand action that would fall outside of anyone’s job description. The problem is more than the things people request of one another.

Through gestures, facial expressions, or use of space people comment upon the nature of their relationships. Through condescending action they can offend others. Communicating in a manner that fails to appreciate colleagues’ knowledge and experience has an emotional impact that in itself becomes an illegitimate demand.

Poor working relationships also waste a lot of time. Personal agendas can interrupt the flow of work. Old resentments can prevent people from sharing vital information in a timely way.

Illegitimate tasks drive burnout in two ways. They drain energy. In a demanding work environment, it can be a challenge to maintain the energy necessary to meet the legitimate demands. Extra, unnecessary work puts people even further behind the curve.

The second driver is value conflict. People become more engaged with their work when they feel their contributions are furthering their core values. When they are working contrary to those values, or just wasting their time being non-productive, they are more vulnerable to experiencing burnout.

What to do?

    Make sure that the demands you make on your colleagues make sense to them as well as to you.

    When others make unreasonable demands upon you, it is worth asking how this task makes sense regarding your workgroup’s mission.

You can find a basic work on illegitimate tasks by Norbert Semmer and colleagues at this site

2 Comments

  1. Dear Dr. Leiter:

    It also happens when a task is no longer useful and is only maintained because there’s no a regular plan of actualization of work organization.

    Lack of trust in employees capacity or honesty also generates a great number of reports that are sometimes sources of pressure and also represent mistrust in employee’s capacity (To prove that you have really worked.

  2. Heriberto–

    You make a good point about unnecessary reports. So many managers do not have a clear idea of what they want employees to contribute. Without such a vision of productive contributions, they can only count the time served rather than the work produced. It creates burdens and undermines a trusting relationship.

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