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Leader's Edge Martyr Dumb

Don’t play the martyr’s destructive game. Teach your employees the benefits of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, time management and appropriate positive action.

By  Julia Kramer

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 slide over.”

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 remedy it.

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 resolving it.

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 resulting dissatisfaction.

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.

Don’t compete. 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.


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Got a human resources problem you can?t resolve? Ask our HR guru Julia Kramer, SPHR, how to handle those sticky personnel issues everyone wants to avoid.