Organizational Leadership Development Florida – EI Leadership
Let's connect!

Do You Play the Martyr (or victim) at Work?

It can start off in a desire to show up at your best. You take on more work to be the perfect team player. And as you feel more pressure because you also have your workload, something unexpected happens and now you are swamped. To cope you complain.

There is a fine line between being a martyr at work and playing the victim. This cycle is damaging to you, personally and professionally. You do not end up looking like a stellar employee, instead you look frustrated and negative. It is bad for your department because you are losing an opportunity to explore better workflow designs and systems.

I want to talk about this because this is an urgent call for change, both for the individual and the organization. The ripple effect of this cycle sets up toxicity in the culture and destroys the confidence in an individual. The solution is not that complicated, but it is an area that never gets talked about, especially at work.

In this blog I am focusing on the individual; what does it mean to be a martyr or a victim and how can you reset this destructive cycle?

Work martyrs pick up the loose ends at work when demands exceed capacity; they are silently celebrated. What leaders do not see is the toxic consequence of martyrs - the cycle of complaining and victim hood that follows.

How do you know if you are a work martyr? Do you:

1. skip lunch or eat at your desk, all the time.

2. feel like any social activity with coworkers is a waste of time.

3. have trouble saying “No,” then complain later that you are the only one doing any work.

4. feel guilty if you do not step up and volunteer for extra work.

5. wear your “crazy busy” like a badge of honor?

6. resent others at work for not doing enough.

7. do not feel appreciated.

Many of us might feel some of this some time; the question is to what degree are you spending your internal resources rehashing conversations or work situations around these issues?

Throughout history martyrs are revered; we have honored people who sacrifice themselves for the good of the group. This is true across cultures and time; this defines an archetype. The enduring pattern or theme, defining behavior, that lives in the collective unconscious is an archetype.

While the hero of the story is driven by a cause, the workplace martyr wants validation, to feel important, appreciated, to feel loved.

Movies, novels, and any great story, have heroes and a villain, both archetypes; the martyr and the victim are also universal patterns that when explored provide the way out for those who are trapped inside this vicious cycle. While the hero of the story is driven by a cause, the workplace martyr wants validation, appreciation, to feel loved.

And because the validation they want must come from within; they never feel satisfied, even when coworkers give them their validation. This is what makes this behavior a compulsion; martyrs have to step in to feel good enough.

During my doctoral research, I studied the impact of restructuring on the workforce and met with this archetype. I also met those who could transcend this self-destructive pattern. When the martyr or the victim learns to give themselves the very thing, they freely give away to everyone else, they heal that part of them that is seeking validation. It transforms the martyr into the hero.

If you struggle with people pleasing, perfectionism, procrastination and never feeling like what you do is enough, then learning to love yourself is in order. There is freedom when you accept yourself.

One of the quickest ways to love yourself is to stop looking for validation from others. It is the same as going through a drive through and eating fast food when you are hungry; you come away full but not satisfied. Instead, you have a rock in your gut and feel sluggish. Yes, you have eaten, but you were not nourished.

Self-love starts with permission to stretch. Do you have goals that stretch you and motivate you to keep moving ahead? Loving yourself is not self-indulgence or staying in one place, playing it safe. Taking risks fuels confidence.

Next time there is something at work that needs doing, ask yourself, does this serve everyone’s highest interest if I fix this problem, or is this a symptom of a bigger problem? Now you are thinking like a hero.

Stay tuned for the second part of this topic: Managing a Heavy Workload.

About the Author Cynthia Howard RN, CNC, PhD

Performance Consultant. Unleashing potential in leaders and organizations through innovative performance development.