Educator Check-In: Are You Overfunctioning?

It’s Sunday night, which means many of my teacher friends are doing what they ought not: gearing up to overfunction.

Overfunctioning is when you assume responsibility that is not yours and do work that belongs to others, thereby taking from others the responsibility and work they need to assume to develop into the people they need to be. It is condescending, because it assumes that you know what is best for others. It is not collaborative, as it sets other people’s goals for them and often ignores what they identify as important to them. And it can be weirdly competitive, as overfunctioners work to “outdo” each other in their service to others; in this way, it leads to both burnout and a martyr complex. It’s a recipe for unhappiness.

Overfunctioning is not the same as working hard. It’s working hard in a way that generates unnecessary work for others and stress for you and for them. It may be effective at getting a job done, but it’s often not–and it’s always inefficient. Just as we have an ethical responsibility not to waste other people’s resources, I think we have a responsibility to not waste our own, especially when we need to reserve it for future crises.

It’s also rampant among academics–and for good reason. Typically, we’re smart (smart enough to earn graduate degrees, anyway!) and competent. Being competitive has got us this far. We lean in, rise to the occasion, and always give it our best.

We’re also worried, especially those of us who are precariously employed–which ismost of the people teaching college.  We want to be good sports and team players, and we don’t want bad evaluations since we know we can be fired without cause.

Above, a hamster on a wheel. You are not a hamster, and you do not need to direct your energy into work that leads nowhere. Video by Greg Heartsfield and available through Wikimedia Commons.

Good administrators help faculty see the scope of their responsibility and help them not go beyond that perimeter. They recognize that faculty are prone to overfunctioning and model for them reasonable expectations. And they protect these boundaries and expectations by not allowing underfunctioning faculty off the hook. They don’t tolerate strategic incompetence or permit colleagues to shift unrewarded work to those who cannot refuse it. (In fact, they recognize and reward this kind of work, which so often falls to women and people of color in the department.) They allocate resources and assign tasks fairly, and they assist people who are underfunctioning in either developing new work attitudes and habits or moving to a different career. They help those prone to overfunctioning recognize the ethical imperative they have not to do the work of others or work for which they are unqualified.

In a time of crisis, many of us overfunction out of anxiety, and, unfortunately, some of  our colleagues and administrators will allow us to do that in order to momentarily lighten a burden for them. Ultimately, this muddies our roles and creates confusion.

Overfunctioning can be hard to see and harder to stop. To see if you are overfunctioning, ask someone who you trust to be able to see if you are. Or ask yourself, Is the work I am doing necessary to achieving my goals, or could I work more efficiently? Am I doing work that belongs to others–including my colleagues, my boss, or my students? Am I trying to rescue people who are not my responsibility–especially from the consequences of their choices? 

Stopping it takes a lot of practice. Here is one strategy that you might use right now if you are caught in a moment of overfunctioning:

  1. Put your work down. Physically move away from it to a space where you cannot see it.
  2. For 5 minutes, focus on something entirely different that demands your attention but doesn’t demand deep thought. For example, try a children’s hidden picture search. Go outside and listen intently for birds. Walk around the block and count your footsteps. Anything that uses your mind for something other than teaching but that is unimportant.
  3. Without returning to your workspace, write down your goal for whatever you were doing when you left that space. Now write down the easiest way you can achieve it. (This is not short-shrifting your students  because you are still achieving the goal.)
  4. Return to your workspace and remove anything that doesn’t support that easiest way to achieving your goal. Close tabs for websites that aren’t helpful. Stop writing that lengthy email. Just do the one thing that will get you to your goal fastest.

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