If you want something done, they say you should ask a busy person. Never mind the fact that this is highly unfair to the busy person in question, who is likely up to her eyeballs in her own work, but, sure, she’ll take a look at this thing you’re asking about, too. It’s fine! It’s fine. No, really, she doesn’t mind.
You can pick out this tone just under the academic-ese in a pair of recent studies about the potential downsides of being a dependable person, particularly in the workplace. This line of research looks specifically at the issue of self-control — those with more self-control, of course, tend to be reliable, competent employees, producing a high volume of work plus picking up extra projects, all while making it look easy. But the thing about being a dependable employee is this: A lot of people really start to depend on you. These experiments have also suggested that people who are higher in self-control tend to compensate for their less competent colleagues by taking on more of the work, suggesting one reason why the highest-performing people may eventually burn out.
Before we get into it, though, you might be curious to know where you rank on self-control. This short quiz is adapted from a survey that psychologists use in their studies of the trait, so it should give you a good idea of where you stand.
I’m pretty good at resisting temptation.
I have a hard time breaking bad habits.
I can be lazy.
I can be inappropriate.
If something is fun, I’ll probably do it, even if I know it’s bad for me.
I refuse things that are bad for me.
I wish I had more self-discipline.
People would say that I have amazing self-discipline.
Pleasure and fun sometimes keep me from getting work done.
I have trouble concentrating.
I’m good at working toward long-term goals.
Sometimes I can’t stop myself from doing something, even if I know it’s wrong.
I often act without thinking.
14-31: low self-control
32-47: average self-control
48-65: high self-control
Until very recently, the scientific literature concerning self-control focused almost exclusively on the benefits of having a lot of it, and understandably so. People who are good at keeping themselves in line also tend to be more successful in school and work; they also have better physical and mental health. Additionally, they often have happier friendships and romantic relationships, perhaps because they tend to lie less often and forgive more easily than people who are not so good at bossing themselves around.
Alas, it is hard to be quite so perfect, and as such, some newer studies are now investigating the negative side of having a higher level of self-control. One of my favorite additions to this new direction of research was led by Duke University psychologist Christy Zhou Koval, in a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The results of one experiment, for example, suggest that people hold higher expectations for the work ethic of peers with higher self-control than they do for their peers with lower self-control. Another took that notion one step further, and found that if you ask people to divvy up an assignment — in this case, proofreading essays — between someone who is good at self-regulation and someone who is bad at it, they tend to dump more work on the one with higher self-control.
A third experiment recounted in that same paper hints at why this might happen. Observers seem to think that go-getters exert less effort than slackers, even when they’re working on the same task, and even though they themselves rated the assignment as equally difficult. They make it look easy, in other words. “The findings here support the notion that people may rely more on others with high self-control, asking them to contribute more than their share of the work,” Koval and her colleagues wrote, by which she means to say: People who are good at getting stuff done are often rewarded by being given more stuff they then need to get done.
But, then again, sometimes the go-getters kind of bring this on themselves. Some preliminary work by Dutch psychologist Iris Sintemaartensdijk has suggested that when these generally together types are paired with slackers, they tend to compensate for their more laid-back partners by doing extra work, taking on more of the project than they would if they were paired with someone who was wired a little more like them. As Koval and her co-authors phrased it in their paper, “people may give their low self-control partners somewhat of a free pass.”
More on the real-life implications of this research, from Koval and colleagues:
Managers may assign greater workload, hold higher expectations, and underestimate the energy and effort required for high self-control employees to accomplish a task. These dynamics may result in management failure to recognize and reward high self-control employees to the extent that is commensurate with their investment of resources. And thus, over time, these dynamics may increase the likelihood that employees who are high in self-control come to feel burned out and unhappy at work.
Sintemaartensdijk, who presented her research last month at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s annual meeting, acknowledges that sometimes, slackers and type-A-types will need to work together, and she has two suggestions:
1. Make individual contributions known. “If you end up doing most of the work, it has to be visible to your boss,” she advised. This is probably best handled during the project, not after its completion, she added.
2. But before that, make the expectations clear. Set some defined deadlines, including an “equal distribution of work beforehand,” she said in an email to Science of Us. Also — some of the go-getters may sometimes need to learn how and when to chill. “Sometimes people differ in how a job should be done,” Sintemaartensdijk said. And sometimes — not all the time, but sometimes — that is fine.