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Have you ever heard the term ‘It’s not my problem‘ in a work context? Have you ever said these words or something along the lines of this statement in context of your job? What was your reaction the last time you heard this statement?

FastCompany did a great piece on the phrase ‘That’s above my pay grade”. It is a harsh critique on what they describe as a ‘subtly disempowering statement‘ or as I prefer to refer to it as, a cowardly and lazy statement. I highly recommend you read the article, as it articulates a few points that are relevant here.

That’s above my pay grade

Fast Company, 16 June 2020

So why are we focusing on that’s not my problem instead. Well, for one thing, using terms like ‘pay grade‘ is not something we can immediately identify with. Another reason stems from the fact that it is not always an authority or hierarchy issue in startups – flat structures and indecisive reporting lines – it is a general apathy to work and responsibility that some employees may have.

What we imagine every single office interaction looks like

Now, before you get out your pitchforks and start nailing pictures of me on dart boards, there are a few things to unpack here.

1) Not everyone is like that. In my experience and the shared experience of the Tech Collective team, we know that most of you are amazing people with strong work attitudes and a great fit for any company’s culture. However, in a startup culture that lacks the rigidity of a traditional corporate culture and a strict adherence to the invisible lines of corporate reporting and authority, the ‘not my problem‘ attitude shows up.

2) Who you are now may not be the type of person you end up becoming. Who I was at 23 versus now, at 36 (don’t fact check that) are two very different people with different motivations. My performance in my early twenties was motivated by immature self interest, while as I grew and learned, the immaturity aspect evolved as well.

3) Not everyone is suited for a startup culture, because it is a fluid structure. The rules and regulations that exist within most startups tend to be gray at best, or in many cases, non-existent. This is why failure is seen as learning, because you cannot expect to get everything right at the first step.

So, please put down those tiki torches and farm equipment, and let’s dissect this further.

What does that statement actually mean?

Well, simply put, to say ‘It’s not my problem‘ is a symptom of a toxic attitude that pushes a narrative of self-preservation above everything else. This isn’t The Walking Dead, we don’t need to horde all the food and medical supplies and leave the rest of the survivors to die.

In startups, most of which have small teams, there is a need to work as a cohesive unit and cover multiple roles within the company. This means that a single employee can wear different hats such as customer service, operations, social media and marketing (non-essential, see context here) and more, at the same time.

With this context in mind, now imagine asking someone to takeover a customer service issue or help share content on your corporate socials, because you’re not able to – then you hear:

It’s not my problem

Now, can you imagine the silence or shock that you might feel? Well, now what can you do and what is an appropriate response. Don’t worry, we’ll get to that, but first let’s explore some of the reasons this type of behaviour or mindset exists.

How we imagine we’ll feel if it happened to us

We need to look at the ‘why’

Before we can unpack a solution or potential solutions, we need to look at the issue and the root of the problem. What causes people to say ‘That’s not my problem’?

We might have a bit harsh at the beginning – alluding to the fact it was a cop-out (editor: lazy and cowardly), but maybe that was unfair. It might have some roots within the fact that many employees are afraid to speak out about issues or problem. Harvard Business Review touched on this topic and highlighted some key points that may directly feedback into that statement.

Are we afraid to take responsibility or just too lazy to take ownership of things outside our direct purview? It might be that, or fear of failure, because in Asian cultures failure is disparaged and seen as a negative to growth – though a startup culture should embrace and learn from failure.

In my personal experience, at the tender age of 22, I was told that if I failed as a junior executive with less than two-months of experience under my belt it would reflect on my permanent file and besmirch the good reputation of the company. I don’t think I slept that night nor most nights afterwards.

This would be me, though I would be wearing a shirt and also be Asian

So are we, as employees to blame, or are we product of our culture – both work and education.

How do we remove ‘It’s not my problem‘ from your startup vocabulary?

According to my research and discussions with colleagues and friends (some with actual HR experience) – there are two ways to look at it.

  • What can you do as an employee?
  • What your company can do to help you?

So, we decided to focus on these two main elements to identify what we can do to eliminate this problem statement from a startup vocabulary.

As an employee, we can look at taking the first steps to initiate conversation and create movement in identifying and resolving this cultural issue.

So one of the first steps would be to involve your manager, director or team leader in the discussion. This shows two things: 1) you respect their opinion and want to resolve this issue 2) you want to move things forward rather than main the status quo and avoid the issue.

Another internal step that employees can take is to help develop the solution than side-step the issue. Someone comes to you with a problem that’s a bit out of your scope, rather than shut it down or ignore it – help them with coming up with the solution. Taking on a new role is tough, but putting aside a bit of time for a brainstorm or helpful review might be just what they need. If you need to actually take on the task or role – then look at it as an opportunity to help bring the company forward.

If you’re a team leader, then your job is to provide them with the environment or tools to help eliminate ‘It’s not my problem‘ from their vocabulary.

Wanting and doing are two different things, so as a leader you need to create that environment that allows them to come to you for help without fear of reprisals of any sort. An open door policy is just the start, because you also need to educate them that asking questions or looking for assistance is not an admission of failure, but rather a request to learn.

If it isn’t policy, then as a team lead or a senior manager – it is your job to push for change within your team and company.

Also, practice what you preach. Are you guilty or ignoring managerial problems you feel are not within your wheelhouse? Be introspective and see if you need to create an example for impressionable staff, by taking on responsibility as you expect your team to as well.

However, there are no quick fixes. Often a team culture that allows for statements such as ‘its not my problem’ has systemic or more ingrained issues that can be fixed with a one-day work retreat. It is important to keep lines of communication open with your staff to understand the circumstances on the office floor.

If you have any specific topics that impact startups or SMEs, please drop us a message here and let us know what you would like us to research and cover.