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That's Not My Job! But Maybe It Should Be

It's great to build new skills, but only if you spot the right opportunities.

Key points

  • Saying "That's not my job" is an important boundary skill, but can close you off to valuable opportunities.
  • There are two instances you should say no to a new skill-building task.
  • Keeping your long-term career goals in mind will help you identify the right kind of skill-building project.

Working smart means going beyond professionalizing your job and beyond being a specialist in your job. The more specialties you have, the more of your time you’ll be able to devote to high-impact value adding—working in your wheelhouse—and the less time you will spend doing things that are not your job.

Source: Bullrun / Adobe Stock
Knowing when to say "That's not my job" is an important boundary, but can close you off to valuable opportunities.
Source: Bullrun / Adobe Stock

Whenever you say to yourself or a colleague, “That’s not my job,” it might be bad news or good news.

If what you really mean is, “I don’t want to do this” or “I shouldn’t have to do this”, in short, you are resisting the extra work. Typically, this is a sign you’re either already working at capacity or in a role that doesn’t align well with your career goals. That’s bad news.

On the other hand, you may be thinking, “That’s not something that I can already do very well, very fast, with confidence.” If that’s you, that’s good news!

How to know when building a new skill is not worth your time

When is the right time to say, “That’s not one of my specialties…yet. But I’d love the chance to add this to my repertoire. Just be aware, I’m new to this.” It is precisely among all those things that are as yet not your job where all the new opportunities to expand your skillset are hiding.

Despite all the advantages of adding to your repertoire, you still need to choose very carefully before saying yes or no to a new task, responsibility, or project.

Sometimes it really shouldn’t be your job. Not all opportunities are equally promising. The least promising fall into two main categories:

The wild-goose chase. These are fruitless tasks that are often time-consuming and sometimes difficult, time wasters that are usually not enjoyable for anyone.

How do you know a wild goose chase when you see one? Sometimes it seems obvious, as when somebody asks you to do something that seems nearly impossible. But don’t mistake something difficult and ambitious—say, sending a rocket to the moon—with something that’s not possible. Something difficult and ambitious might prove to be a game-changing opportunity for you.

One shortcut might be the reputation of the asker. Has this person wasted your time before? Or that of others? Still, prejudging a colleague’s requests based on reputation or even your own experience with them might get you a reputation for being uncooperative or cliquish.

A more reliable way to identify a wild goose chase is in the request itself. Be on the lookout for a half-baked ask: If the ask comes in early and then gets revised iteratively, then you are likely to go off in one direction, then another, and then another, without accomplishing much. Sometimes those projects just go away altogether; it becomes clear they shouldn’t be undertaken at all. Other times, they are revised and mature into good projects. Either way, the early-stage work proves a fruitless waste of time.

You are really the wrong person for this task. You wouldn’t ask a lawyer to perform a routine dental exam, and you shouldn’t ask a file clerk to operate a forklift.

In some cases, it would be ridiculous for you to accept an incoming request. But if you know who’s who and where to find them, you can make the right introduction and be the connector, which by itself is a service. Get really good at this and your introductions will carry more weight. You can turn these ridiculous requests from an opportunity to become frustrated into an opportunity to become known as someone who connects talented people.

How to identify good opportunities for expanding your skillset

So, how do you identify when a task seemingly outside your job should become a part of your job? There are three primary instances.

Somebody’s got to do it—and it might as well be you. These are the tasks that routinely come up that belong to no one, but somebody’s got to do it—one-off errands. Of course, you don’t want to become an office gofer. But there are some good reasons to sometimes take up the occasional one-off errands: Good workplace citizenship, teamwork, humility, and relationship ROI. People notice, and they appreciate and remember it.

For example:

  • Not being the office cleaning service, but perhaps emptying the garbage midweek when it overflows.
  • Not repairing office equipment but knowing how to troubleshoot common printer problems.
  • Not being the office caterer, but perhaps making the coffee when you come in first.
  • Not being the office manager but bringing in the mail or opening a box of supplies when you see them.
  • Not being a trainer but taking the time to teach a colleague how to do something that will make both your workflows easier.

The job is a close cousin to your specialty. These are often the most natural and easy opportunities to add to your repertoire. These are the jobs that are usually a good fit with your other responsibilities and relatively easy to add to your repertoire of specialties, such as waitstaff who can fill in on hosting duties in a pinch.

The job presents a brand-new opportunity to truly expand your repertoire—or even take on an additional career or change careers. It’s always a good idea to branch out and build new knowledge, skills, wisdom, relationships, experiences, best practices, tools, work products, and repeatable solutions. Mastering brand-new specialties is how you truly diversify your opportunities to add value. Some new specialties are easier to add than others. Most require up-to-speed training, some require going back to school. This would be a server who decides to move from the front of the house to the back as a line cook. Use long-term career goals as a guide here. For example, if that person wants to become a restauranteur, then it’s a good idea to have at least some experience in every aspect of running a restaurant.

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