How to Discourage Martyrdom on Your Team

Stressed Woman

Martyrs are those who seek sympathy or attention by over exaggerating and workplace martyrs can bring down the environment. One blogger has a few suggestions on how to deal with these types of people. 

By Beth Bierbower (President of the Employer Group Segment, Humana)

I recently read this article on leaders who are martyrs. My mind immediately went to my aunt, an otherwise lovely woman who becomes a martyr around the holidays. Offer to bring something for Christmas dinner and she declines. All through the meal preparation, she refuses assistance and when it comes time for cleanup, she shoos us out of the kitchen. Sprinkled throughout the day are comments about how long it took to bake the pies, clean the house or how exhausted she will be after doing the dishes. Sound familiar?

While the definition of a martyr contains the religious references as well as the reference to pain and suffering, the work definition is spot on when it comes to the workplace martyr: a person who seeks sympathy or attention by feigning or exaggerating pain, deprivation, etc.

Martyrs thrive on being the center of the universe. No project can carry on without their leadership and direction. No one can possibly do the job as well as the martyr. If you listen closely you will hear the martyr comment on how busy she is. Her workload seems to be more than everyone else’s. The way she talks, you wonder how the company could possibly run without her. She is simply exhausted. The martyr actually survives and thrives in chaos. If her life were organized, who would need her?

When I read the article, I wondered how martyrs survive in the workplace, then I realized, they take credit for what goes right in the project while the other team members spend time cleaning up on aisle 7 (can you name the movie?). The martyr often has enough access to leadership that she can paint the picture of her heroic efforts.

So how do you deal with martyrs? The article doesn’t provide remedies and in fact suggests that martyrs can’t be helped. Here are a few suggestions:

  • If you have the opportunity to choose team members, skip the martyr. Having her on board will not be worth the access to leadership.
  • If the martyr must be on the team, try to limit her focus to one area of the project where she will do the least amount of damage.
  • Ensure that the martyr is not the only one with access to senior leaders. Updates should come from many team members.

I think I am pretty good at subverting the martyr gene that resides in my family but every once in a while, the martyr trait rears its ugly head with me – usually when I receive an offer for help and of course decline. It’s a something that I continue to work on – which is simply learning to say “yes, thank you, I could use some help.”

Speak loudly, step boldly!

How do you deal with martyrs in the workplace?

This post originally appeared on the author’s blog

Beth Bierbower

About the guest blogger: Beth Bierbower is President of Humana’s Employer Group Segment, with responsibility for driving the growth and profitability of Humana’s employer group products including Medical, Specialty, Group Medicare and Wellness and Productivity offerings. Under Beth’s leadership, the Employer Group Segment is evolving into an organization that helps employers improve the productivity of their workforce. Beth is also a member of the Executive Team, which sets the strategic direction for the company.