On the Clock

How To Decide When to Raise Your Hand

It’s good for companies and your career to put in “discretionary energy.” But can it go too far?

4 min read

If Melissa has been anything at her law firm, it’s been the eager beaver. When new projects emerged during a merger, she volunteered to take them on. New lines of business meant new duties, which she also readily accepted. So did the restructuring of business, where again she pitched in. And finally, there were the merging of teams, requiring routine 12-hour days for her.

It all made sense to her because she wanted to get ahead and loved the firm. Only, several years into this, Melissa came to realize that all this dedication wasn’t helping her. In fact, she’d been passed over a promotion twice. “At this point, it’s not about the work but about getting recognized for it,” says Nicole Woodson, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance, who is working with Melissa (which is not her real name). “We’re talking about putting her hand back down.”

“One study found when workers are stretched too thin, productivity decreases by 13%.”

It’s a classic conundrum: when to volunteer for a new project or responsibility and when to stand down, particularly if you already feel inundated with your workload. Sure, taking on a new task could lead to a promotion or more compensation, or at the very least some well-deserved recognition (we hope). And it can also push you out of your comfort zone, allowing you to learn new skills. “It can be powerful to raise your hand for such assignments, especially if they’re in line with your long-term career goals,” Woodson says.

But doing so can also go horribly wrong, leaving workers with a sense of cynicism and companies having to search for new talent. One study (aptly called “Doing more with less: productivity or starvation?”) from the University of New South Wales found that productivity at what the researchers called “starved workplaces”—where workers were stretched too thin—was 13% lower than productivity at companies that invested more heavily in their staffs.

Indeed, for companies to survive and compete effectively, they must find ways to boost the bottom line while being mindful of how to best harness employees’ creativity—a concept known as “discretionary energy.” Research from the Korn Ferry Institute found that when companies have a high discretionary energy portfolio, their values outperformed places with a low discretionary energy portfolio by about 9%—which turns into a boon for shareholders. The report concluded, “Unleashing discretionary energy is the fuel of competitive advantage, and competitive advantage creates profit.”

To harness your own discretionary energy correctly—and not fall into the burnout trap—career coaches say it’s key to get as much clarity about the new task so expectations are known. Knowing how your work should be prioritized, and continuing to revise that conversation as the new tasks unfold, can help you decide to volunteer. If the opportunity sounds vague, it may be best to steer clear.

Another issue: Many people don’t have an efficient system for the way they work—and therefore can’t decipher whether they can handle another responsibility. “Most people have a sense of what they’re doing in general, but they don’t have it organized and collected and catalogued,” says Maura Thomas, a workplace productivity consultant and author of Work Without Walls: An Executive’s Guide to Attention Management, Productivity, and the Future of Work. “Without being able to specifically identify what you’re held accountable for, you can’t make an informed decision on if you can do more, if you can delegate stuff—even which parts of your job you enjoy.”

So where can you start? Thomas recommends writing all your duties down in the most specific terms possible—“I edit the Excel sheet that tracks employee work schedules in our warehouses in Chicago and San Diego,” instead of merely scribbling down “employee work schedule”—to see what you really do at work. This can help you make a smart choice when deciding whether to raise your hand up—or keep it down.

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