Career Advancement

Don’t Get Stuck: How Being Too Helpful Can Cost You a Promotion

As workers and employers face decisions about when and if to go back to in-person work, women need to be on guard for an invisible challenge that may await.

Research shows that women tend to take on more of what’s termed non-promotable work. Also called glue work, this includes many tasks that make things run smoothly in a work setting: training new employees, volunteering for committee work, taking notes in meetings, even organizing birthday celebrations. Anything that’s not part of your core work duties can qualify — including critical functions like communicating with clients, streamlining work processes, and mentoring younger employees.

How being helpful could hurt you

These tasks aren’t a waste; they help things run smoothly and make for a better workplace. The problem is that employers often don’t value this type of work when it comes to promotions.

The issue spans industries. In tech, it might look like a junior engineer taking on tasks like talking to customers or clarifying project goals at the expense of time spent coding. When promotion time comes, they don’t have concrete coding projects to prove their worth. In academia, it can be things like committee assignments, mentoring, or giving talks to outside groups, none of which count towards tenure. In business, it could be helping colleagues with their projects, supporting affinity groups, or organizing morale boosters like Friday bagel breaks.

Spending time on these tasks can be risky business for junior people trying to move up in the organization. But saying no can also do damage, as research shows women are judged more harshly than men are for not helping out.

So what can you do?

It’s not as simple as just saying no to everything. Women need to be thoughtful and carefully choose what they say yes to. At Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, MBA students work with professional leadership coaches to practice for these types of interactions. Try these strategies to avoid getting mired in the glue:

  • Don’t say yes on the spot. Give yourself time to check your calendar and consider the request, think about what you’d have to give up to do it, and see if you can schedule time for the task in your calendar.
  • Be strategic and intentional — think through why you would say yes. Some glue work can help you. Joining a business women’s group might expose you to senior managers you’d otherwise not meet, while organizing birthday celebrations probably won’t.
  • Practice saying no. Try to recommend another avenue, perhaps another way to get the task done or another person who might be better positioned to help. Offer to trade this commitment for one you already have.

How managers can help

Managers need to be conscious of this issue as well. Research shows that managers, regardless of gender, are more likely to ask women to take on this kind of work. At the same time, they are best positioned to fix the problem.

  • An awareness of this unconscious tendency can help managers distribute tasks more evenly.
  • Even better, make this work valued. Make it part of the job description and thus promotable work.
  • Have senior managers do some of it. Making things work well in the office should be part of their core duties and their senior position should insulate them from promotion concerns.

It’s human nature to want to be helpful and these tasks can make for a pleasant, well-functioning workplace. The key is to make sure they are distributed in an equitable way that doesn’t block the advancement of team players.

Leanne Meyer is the Executive Director of the Accelerate Leadership Center at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.

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