The quickest way to be bad at your job is to say that something isn’t your job

“That’s not my job.” We hear it all the time. Sometimes it’s true, and often it’s not — but either way, the phrase has no place in a startup.

The quickest way to be bad at your job is to say that something isn’t your job

“That’s not my job.”

We hear it all the time. Sometimes it’s true, and often it’s not — but either way, the phrase has no place in a startup.

In the fast-paced, nimble, endlessly changing environment of a new business, everyone does everything (or at least, they should be willing to). It may not be what many of us are used to from our experiences in the corporate world, education system, or life in general, but it’s the way it works. Pretending you are exempt from this fact of startup life is not only egotistical, it’s disrespectful to the other members of your team.

The Unspoken Rule

It’s a story we can probably all relate to. You’re in a meeting with your team, and you’ve hit that amazing flow where everything is clicking, everyone is supporting each other, and the camaraderie is palpable. After coming to agreement on a new initiative that will take your company to the next level, you start dividing responsibilities. Everyone gladly accepts their new tasks, knowing it will be for the greater good of the team as a whole.

People in an office

Photo by Kouadio Kévin Yoboua on Unsplash

That is, until the delegating gets to Negative Nancy, who either:

  1. begrudgingly accepts their new role with a look of disdain, or
  2. speaks the forbidden phrase: “That’s not my job.”


Yes, it’s understandable why taking on additional responsibilities beyond your “job description” may not be an ideal situation. It’s more work, more time, and potentially more stress. But here’s the problem:

Every job description at a startup has an unwritten caveat at the end that yes, Nancy, you did indeed sign up for.

“The team member in so-and-so position will be responsible for X, Y, and Z.*** They will be paid $ABC, have # days of vacation, and will report to the manager of the _____ team.
***And, additionally, any other roles that may arise, which will be delegated based on the needs of the company.”

I always thought that this caveat was an assumed part of working with new businesses, but perhaps this is because the startups I’ve been lucky enough to come in contact with have been intentional about cultivating these supportive, team-driven environments. Everyone has to be on board from the beginning — especially those in leadership.

Cultivating the Right Environment

Creating a team-first startup requires a delicate balance that can be easily upset if even one person decides to be selfish and put their own interests ahead of the good of the group (and the business). Not only does speaking in this dismissive way indicate a toxic attitude within the speaker, it also warns of a toxic environment that has the potential to develop within the organization.

Take a look at this story from Trello:

This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have.

Often, the tasks people say “not my job” to are the ones that haven’t been assigned to anyone. It’s a situation where anyone could step up (and everyone should), but perhaps nobody does — so the blame starts to fly.

If a company has built up an environment where team members feel empowered and encouraged to take initiative, the likelihood of those tasks falling through the cracks is much lower. Look at the world of sports: athletes don’t miss chances to help their team simply because it isn’t something their position normally does.

What if a player on a soccer team decided that blocking a shot on goal wasn’t part of their job description as a forward? Would their team be understanding if they stood and watched the ball roll right past their foot and across the goal line? Could someone else have stepped up?

No matter what the dynamic of your team is — whether you’re a group of best friends or never speak outside the office — building an environment where everyone steps up to help everyone else is of the utmost importance. We all know how quickly things change in startups: if no support system exists, then the business itself — like those random tasks — will start falling through the cracks.

The Exceptions

There are very few situations I can think of when saying “not my job” is acceptable. Honestly, it’s never really a phrase that should come out of your mouth, but if the circumstance falls under one of these exceptions (or any I may have missed) then there are definitely other ways to approach it.

Someone else is being lazy, asking you to do their core job, or taking advantage of you.

Okay, yes, if the graphic designer for your startup is asking you to take over designing the new logo when that is the only thing currently on their plate, then you can turn that down. Instead of saying “that’s not my job,” practice simply saying no and giving a short explanation why. Many of us are terrible at saying no—myself included—so use this chance to practice.

You don’t have the expertise to do the job well.

Although my argument above was that everyone does everything (or should at least be willing to), if you truly don’t have the knowledge to be successful with the project, then voice that concern. If someone asked me to take over accounting for my team, then I would know myself better than to just “figure it out.” As long as you are polite and offer to help find an alternative solution, the team should be understanding and thankful that you are self-aware enough to know your own strengths.

Whatever you’re being asked to do is inappropriate or makes you uncomfortable.

You’d think this one would be obvious, but I’ve encountered a lot of people in entry-level positions who are hesitant to speak up in these situations for fear of losing their job or losing the respect and trust of their boss. The range of inappropriate asks is large, but trust your gut: if something isn’t right, you’ll know. Tell someone. I once had a friend whose boss asked her to deliver divorce papers to his wife. That one is clearly not your job, and it’s okay to find a way to say that.

Flexibility is one of those traits that pretty much every company is looking for in its employees. In a startup environment where anyone can take initiative and everyone should, having a willingness to pivot your role is a vital part of supporting the team. Your job is to fit the needs of the organization, not the other way around.

–Photo by Nicholas Barbaros on Unsplash