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Keep Your Cookies and Don’t Feed the Animals

If you give a mouse a cookie…

I‘m sure most of you are familiar with the phrase above, and some of you probably remember this book from grammar school. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, open a new tab, Google it, then come back.

If You Give a Mouse a CookieNow that we are all on the same page, I can tell you why you should avoid the mouse (and friends) type of people in your workplace. There is nothing wrong with being a team player and helping out your co-workers when they ask. Personally, I enjoy the random requests from my co-workers and rise to the challenge when they ask for the impossible. Most often, they’ll show appreciation for my assistance and help me when I need a hand. Sometimes people are not as appreciative, and have come to expect assistance. I know these kinds of people are in every workplace, I’m sure a few of your own co-workers just came to mind. They take advantage of your generosity and habitually come to you when they need something. By being the kind person that you are, you usually surrender to their needs and then later realize you might have been tricked into doing their work for them. You’ve become the unsuspecting victim, who has not only given them a cookie, but given them the run of your home and your time.

This kind of working relationship is not helpful to either of you in the long run. You probably have your own tasks to complete and don’t want to fall behind. They clearly want to make their lives easier and can do so by delegating to you under the guise of “I just need a little help”. Once this cycle has begun, it’s hard to cut them off.

Who’s really hungry?

Before you start denying all requests for help, you should identify the repeat offenders versus the occasional askers. Knowing who is actually taking advantage and who just genuinely needs help is important, but you also need to consider the level/position of the individuals prior to locking up the pantry. Typically, requests from your superiors are not considered favors and are just tasks being delegated to you. Though when the tasks start looking more like favors, you should question why you are agreeing to take them on and if it is something you really need to be doing with your time. If you are trying to work your way up, saying no to someone above you isn’t advised, but that is another topic for another day. As far as other co-workers go, you should figure out what kind of person they are and when it’s time to start cutting them off.

The Mouse – Just wants a cookie

It all began with a small request, and over time they have increased the frequency of their needs. Fortunately, they’re consistent with the level of work required, but you’re constantly doing small projects for them. So you’re forced to divide your time over your work and theirs.

The Weasel – Has you making sandwiches

They started out like the mouse, but then they began shifting responsibility to you. Suddenly, you’re in charge of those tasks they just needed help with. Over time, they kept adding to your workload while lightening theirs. Everyone else has forgotten who those tasks originally belonged to because you’ve been doing them for so long.

The Fox – You’re cooking, serving the meal, and doing the dishes

This person started out with reasonable requests, and even convinced you that you were going to benefit from all your hard work. As the tasks have become more complex, you started to notice that you weren’t benefiting at all from the arrangement. But when you’ve tried to bring it up in conversation, they hand you another cup of their Kool-Aid and you agree to continue on with the unrewarding workload.

The Bear – You’re catering for a crowd (and footing the bill)

Their first request was a huge one, and for some reason, you obliged. You thought this was a chance to show how versatile you are or how committed you are to the team’s success. Now they come to you with short deadlines, outlandish requirements, and it’s not optional. They aren’t asking you anymore, they’re just telling you. You’ve proven yourself to be so dependable, that they don’t consider the fact that you may not be able to get done.

Closing the kitchen

Miniature blackboard  - with 'kitchen closed' message handwritte

So how do you start taking back your time without burning bridges? Carefully. You should approach each type of person differently. You don’t want to sever ties or sour relationships, but you should be prepared for some initial negative reactions.

Next time you’re approached by the mouse for another one of their minor requests, instead of just doing what you always do, confront them about their continuous need for assistance. Offer to show them how to take care of these things on their own. Explain that your time is valuable and they should respect your need to put your own work ahead of theirs.

The weasel will not be as easy to shake. Obviously, they’ve become accustomed to you doing their work for them, so giving it back will probably be a battle. They clearly passed these tasks off to you because they didn’t want to do them and chances are, they don’t want them back. You will need to stop taking on any new tasks and become the weasel yourself. Slowly pass the tasks back to them in the same fashion they were passed to you. By reversing the roles, you will eventually regain the balance that existed before the transfer of tasks. Don’t stay the weasel, or you will be stuck in a whole new cycle of trading tasks.

When it comes to the fox you need to stop walking into their traps, so it’s time for you to wake up and recognize when they are manipulating you. They don’t ask you directly, they just work it into conversation in a way that makes you feel like they are sharing something with you, but really they’re just setting you up to take on part (or all) of their project. When this this inevitable conversation begins, you should see it for what it is, cut it short, and tell them about how busy you are with something else. By denying them the opportunity to ask, you can avoid falling into your old habit of taking it on under false promises. Most of the time, you are not going to benefit from their offer, so don’t entertain it. For the tasks you have already undertaken and want to get rid of, refer to dealing with the weasel.

The bear is the swiftest to cut off, but could damage the reputation you were probably trying to achieve. Since their demands, I mean requests, are typically random and over the top, you never know when and what they will be asking for next. This can work in your favor because you can stop conceding when you finally have the guts to say no. The next time they approach you, take it as an opportunity to end the madness. Take back control over your schedule and explain that you are simply not going to be able to complete the task. By posing the denial of their request as an attempt to respect them by not over committing yourself (and ultimately failing), they will be forced to make other arrangements. Eventually they will stop asking because you are not their go to person anymore. Obviously, you started helping them for a reason, but continually stressing yourself out every time you’re up against a deadline for them, isn’t worth the potential bit praise they might throw your way.

The house is all yours again

Now that you’re no longer doing other people’s work for no real benefit, you can go back to focusing on your own tasks. This doesn’t mean you can’t lend a helping hand every once in a while, but set boundaries and stick to them. It’s too easy to fall back into your old habits, so keep your eyes open and pay attention to the signs.

And remember: Don’t feed the animals!