Don’t play the martyr’s
destructive game. Teach your employees the benefits of
self-awareness, emotional intelligence, time management and
appropriate positive action.
Not many people bug me more than a martyr. I’m not
talking about a true martyr, someone who suffers greatly for
something they strongly believe in. I’m talking about the
run-of-the-mill “look at me” martyr who frequently
complains to get attention and sympathy.
A recent Washington Post
story talked about standing Metro riders who fumed while other,
seated riders blocked empty window seats. A rider looked on
exasperated while “a man and woman…made no move to
I kept reading, thinking at some point this beleaguered
rider would stop being so darn passive and politely say,
“Excuse me, I’d like to sit in that seat.”
This is the epitome of dumb to me—martyr dumb—when
you’d rather suffer and be the focus of situation than
Workplace martyrs are even more exasperating, especially
when staff numbers are down and everyone’s carrying an
extra load. Not only do martyrs walk around in hopes that
someone will ask them what’s wrong, but typically they
waste a lot of time talking about the problem and little time
They feel this attention-getting is fair exchange for their
self-inflicted long hours, personal sacrifice and going beyond
the call of duty. What they don’t get is that many of
their colleagues go the extra mile but don’t have a
martyr syndrome, don’t resent others for their own
choices at work, don’t play the perpetual victim and
don’t continually create drama to call attention to their
So what’s a smart manager to do when a colleague or
staff is just plain martyr-dumb? The answer is simple:
Don’t let them get away with their victimized behavior.
But be prepared because simple does not mean easy or without
drama and because drama is what the martyr is all about. Here
are a few ways a smart manager can circumvent the negative
effects of the martyr.
Nip it in the bud. Most
martyrs are not newly made, but identifying them early on can
help minimize the damage. Hallmarks of the martyr include
volunteering for additional and undesirable tasks, rarely
asking for help even when they are working long hours and are
overwhelmed and exhausted, and maintaining the status quo when
things don’t go well rather than resolving issues once
and for all. Manage martyrs by dividing up unpleasant tasks so
that everyone gets their fair share; ask martyrs if they need
help and then let them know that, if they don’t ask for
it when they need it, then it’s their issue, not yours.
Finally, give martyrs counseling and consequences for
continuing to follow processes that are problematic in an
attempt to avoid change.
Ignore the squeaky wheel.
Responding to martyrs—whether by consoling or conversely
by telling them to cut it out—is a mistake. Expressing
support and understanding feeds the martyr complex, makes them
think they are justified in their self-flagellation, and
inspires them to do more of the same. Telling them to cut it
out brings on a load of reasons (typically all your fault) of
why they have no choice but to work harder and longer than
everyone else. By ignoring the squeaky wheel, managing the
workload through effective delegation, providing feedback only
on performance issues, and offering help and resources but not
taking responsibility for the job getting done, you might avoid
much of the emotion and drama.
Confronted with employees who constantly assert that they have
more work than anyone else at the firm, many managers want to
lay out their list of to-dos and flaunt their own overtime.
Don’t compete with the martyr. It’s a no-win. Sure,
you may be working on weekends, regularly traveling overnight,
getting an amazing amount of high-quality work done, meeting
deadlines and moving the company forward, but this information
will fall on deaf ears. Remember: It’s not about you or
anyone else. It’s about the martyr and a deep-seated
insecurity that can only be
satisfied—momentarily—by someone else’s
praise and affirmation.
Stay focused. Martyrs are
relentless, and sometimes it’s hard to separate their
issues from reality. That’s because the situation may be
real—they actually may do the work no one else wants to
do at great personal cost—though the motivation is off
kilter. According to Gary Topchik, author of Managing Workplace Negativity, the
martyr’s trademark statement is, “I have given up
everything for this company, and nobody cares.” What they
don’t understand is that this is both a misguided and an
undesirable work ethic. No one should strive to give up
everything for their job, and telling them this typically makes
it worse because they feel even more unappreciated.
Managing the martyr is a complex and difficult task, so get
smart. Don’t be martyr-dumb. Avoid playing the
martyr’s destructive game, maintain a results-oriented
environment, and carefully model and teach your employees the
benefits of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, time
management and taking positive action when appropriate.
Kramer is The Council’s senior vice president, Office
of the President.