How to Avoid Dead-End Tasks at Work (Without Risking Your Job)

How to Avoid Dead-End Tasks at Work (Without Risking Your Job)

Every job comes with a variety of expected duties, some of which may be helpful, longterm, for earning you a promotion — and some of which never will. For example, if you are a teacher, designing and implementing a new curriculum might help put you in line for a promotion, while volunteering your time for extracurricular activities likely will not. Although both are important for the overall functioning of a school, one is more likely to directly benefit your career than the other. Economists call the dead-end tasks “non-promotable tasks.”

Non-promotable tasks are important but don’t lead to promotions

Similar to office housework, such as planning parties, taking notes, or being the person to keep the break room well-stocked with coffee, these are tasks that, while they are important for the smooth functioning of the workplace, won’t contribute to your long-term success at work.

“This is all the work we do in an organisation that helps out the organisation but doesn’t help the individual who is performing the task,” said Lise Vesterlund, an economist at the University of Pittsburgh and a co-author of the book The No Club: Putting aStop to Women’s Dead-End Work. This could include working with a low-revenue client, doing behind-the-scenes work to make a presentation more polished, or helping with on-boarding.

Women are doing a disproportionate amount of this work

As research is showing, women are doing a disproportionate amount of non-promotable tasks. “In every organisation we’ve looked at, women are doing a much larger share of this work,” Vesterlund said. “In one professional service firm we worked with, women were spending 200 more hours on the non-promotable work than what their male colleagues were doing. We’re talking the equivalent of more than a month of work a year.”

Women end up doing a disproportionate amount of these tasks for a number of reasons, which includes that they are asked more frequently, and are viewed more harshly when they say no.

“Women are not doing this work because they are inherently better at it or inherently enjoy it more, they are doing the work because we all expect them to do the work,” Vesterlund said. “In one of the studies we did, we found that women are asked to do this work almost 50% more than men.”

It’s important to recognise that this is a widespread issue, one that crops up in every workplace, which means that fixing it shouldn’t be the responsibility of one person, but rather the entire organisation.

On a systemic level, this would mean finding ways of distributing these tasks equally or assigning them to people for whom completing the tasks would factor into a promotion. For example, organising a conference won’t get you promoted if you are a faculty member, but it would if you work in administration. “Bringing awareness can really go a long way,” Vesterlund said.

Identify which tasks are dead-end

That said, when it comes to these dead-end tasks, there are certain strategies you can employ to keep them at a manageable level. To start with, Vesterlund and her colleagues recommend taking a good hard look at how you spend your time at work.

Write down all of the tasks and duties that occupy your time, then categorise them in terms of promotability. Some tasks will be directly related to promotability, others will have a moderate amount of promotability, while yet others will not have any.

“There’s a spectrum of promotability,” said Laurie Weingart, a management professor at Carnegie Mellon University and one of the co-authors of the book.

Overall, you want to strive for a good balance. Everyone will need to do a certain amount of non-promotable work, as it’s important for the overall functioning of the workplace, but you don’t want it to crowd out the work that will get you promoted.

Focus on using your skills wisely

Once you have an idea of which tasks are more promotable than others, the next step is to identify which ones need to go and then talk it over with your boss to ensure you are spending your time in the most appropriate way for your skills.

“This is an opportunity to sit down with your manager and review your work portfolio, and to ask them to help you to rebalance that portfolio work,” Weingart said. “A manager wants the most out of all their employees. They often aren’t aware of the cumulative effect of all these non-promotable tasks on any one individual.”


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