Eliot's Ramblings

Debugging the Boss: The Martyr

Like The Superhero, The Martyr does their team’s work to make up for not managing. However, whereas The Superhero insists on hogging all the interesting work, The Martyr does work that no-one wants to do.

When a deadline is looming and things are looking down, they will pull all nighters to finish it themselves rather than do what a manager should do, such as motivating their team, or fixing the deadline. When things go wrong, they will take all the blame instead of teaching their team.

In the grand scheme of things, The Martyr poses less of a threat to an organization than some other buggy bosses, more analogous to inferior lubrication on moving parts than the active sabotage of The Glory Hog. Nonetheless, they do have negative effects, and often would love to do better if they only knew how.

Subtypes: Some Martyrs won’t delegate because they don’t want to – their personality craves the sacrificial behavior. Others do so because they can’t bring themselves to delegate unpleasant work, and doing it themselves is their only option.

Behavior in meetings: The Martyr will never miss an opportunity to call attention to their sacrifices. This overt, calculated attention-seeking is the opposite of inspiring.

Impact on team: The good news is that The Martyr does not persecute their team, belittle them, or in any way create an environment that punishes excellence. They do, however, lower the bar. As the team learns that the boss will just cover all the gaps, team members will not feel the need to stretch, or put in an extra, last-mile sprint when it’s crunch time. If The Martyr covers enough of the grunt work, some on their team may become downright spoiled, internalizing the idea that they should never have to do work that they dislike.

Impact on product: The Martyr refuses to delegate crappy tasks, which can bottleneck the team when those tasks are the ones that matter. When The Martyr inevitably reaches the end of their capacity, or even breaks down, product releases will be delayed.

Trait gone wrong: A sense of duty.

Debugging: The right approach will depend on what kind of Martyr you’re dealing with. For those who are simply squeamish about delegating work they know is unpleasant, you can focus on the negative impact their behavior has on the team. As with The Best Friend, realign their view of what’s good for their team members from the short-term dislike of certain tasks to the long-term needs of their careers.

The self-appointed Martyr is a harder debug. While they do care about the happiness of their team, they are most of all driven to seek acknowledgment and approval through sacrifice. They will never miss an opportunity to go unhealthily above and beyond, so they can moan about how hard it was to everyone. They need help to believe that their peers will value them even if they are not burning themselves to cinders. This is a job for a therapist; but peers, reports, and managers of Martyrs can best help by facing this head on with a private, compassionate, but frank conversation. Tell them straight out that they are doing themselves harm, and that they do not need to fear being judged as inadequate, for “only” putting in a full week’s work. If they appear receptive to this feedback, you should continue to reinforce this over time. If they do not, and instead become defensive, you can try again, but if you gain no traction, you will have to evaluate if they are doing more harm than good.

Not to be mistaken for: The Superhero, who wants all the work and doesn’t care if they don’t leave it for team, or The Best Friend, who might do work rather than having their team do it because they want to be liked.