The Art of the Illegitimate Task

There’s a story, I believe in Bill Buford’s book Heat (although I don’t have a copy with me to check; I’ll tell it to the best of my ability, but I might be off on details), about visiting Thomas Keller’s famed Napa Valley restaurant The French Laundry. It’s either the tail end of the 1990s or the early 2000s, when the restaurant was just hitting its peak popularity. Buford pulls into the parking lot of the restaurant, and head chef Thomas Keller comes out to greet him. Keller notices a cigarette butt on the ground and without discussion picks it up to throw it away. Later, when Buford is reflecting on his visit, he talks about how Keller has created an ethos at The French Laundry that every person who works there, from chefs to hosts, are responsible for every detail of the restaurant. If you notice a cigarette butt in the parking lot, you pick it up and throw it away, no matter your station in life or at the restaurant. No detail is too fine, no job too small for anyone.

I love that story as a story, but in real life, it gets a number of things wrong. Picking up a cigarette butt while walking from the parking lot to the restaurant is one thing. But what if there were 50 cigarette butts, and the act of ambling around and crouching down to find and pick up every one of them would take approximately 10 minutes? At that point, for a chef, that’s an illegitimate task.

What Are Illegitimate Tasks?

“Tasks are illegitimate if they violate norms about what an employee can properly be expected to do, because they are perceived as unnecessary or unreasonable; they imply a threat to one’s professional identity,” says one research paper on the topic (Semmer et al., 2015). I would add or clarify that an illegitimate task can also be defined as tasks that are a poor use of resources, such as a high paid employee doing a task that could be done by a person earning much less money. When a high earner does an illegitimate task, it takes up time that the person could have spent doing something more productive, that is to say, with a higher return on investment. It’s one thing to feel like it’s not beneath you to pick up a cigarette butt. It’s another to waste 10 minutes picking through gravel when you should have be prepping in the kitchen.

Illegitimate tasks are highly contextual. It’s not necessarily dirty work that’s beneath us. Rarely is the task itself illegitimate, rather the place, time, situation, person being asked to do the job, or person doing the asking makes a task illegitimate. Sometimes a task would be completely legitimate if the circumstances were slightly different. Semmer et al. give the example of a driver. If an employee asks a company driver to take his kids to their Little League game, that’s an illegitimate task. Company drivers are not hired to run personal errands for employees. However, if a personal driver is asked to do the same task, it’s totally fine. They’re both drivers. The task is the same. But the context is different.

Why Are Illegitimate Tasks Problematic?

“According to social identity theory,” write Semmer et al., “people tend to value their professional roles,” which in turn makes their roles part of their professional identity. All that is wrapped up personal issues such as self-esteem and pride. Illegitimate tasks create conflict and can threaten that self-esteem and pride. It can threaten the sense of self.

When we’re asked to do something that we feel constitutes an illegitimate task, we might respond with feelings of resentment, anger, rancor, or indignation. It doesn’t seem fair. It threatens our professional identity. It harbors feelings of low self-esteem. All those things can drain your motivation and lower your productivity.

Of course, the boss asking an employee to change the printer cartridge or pick up coffee for her visitors probably isn’t thinking about whether the task might make the employee feel like a loser. The boss is just trying to get something done.

What Can You Do?

From the employee perspective, try to bear in mind that the person asking you to do an illegitimate task is probably (hopefully!) not intentionally trying to humiliate you or demean your professional stature (although in rare cases, that may be exactly the problem). In all likelihood, the task assigner is not thinking about how the task is making you, the assignee, feel, or even thinking about what other tasks you might be doing that are more important instead. It may be worth addressing if the assignee is egregious. But if you’re being asked to vigilantly keep an eye on every detail of a restaurant, and the task at hand is picking up one single cigarette butt that’s in view, then maybe just do it.

From the point of view of a manager or supervisor, Semmer et al. advise paying “special attention to social messages they communicate by assigning certain tasks to employees [citing Semmer & Beehr, 2014]. Potential threats to professional identities may be obvious when tasks are clearly demeaning, but less so for more subtly illegitimate tasks.”

References

Semmer, N. K., Jacobshagen, N., Meier, L. L., Elferin, A., Beehr, T. A., Kalin, W., & Tschan, F. (2015). Illegitimate tasks as a source of work stress. Work & Stress 29(1): 32–56.

Semmer, N. K., & Beehr, T. A. (2014). Job control and social aspects of work. In M. C. W. Peeters, J. de Jonge, & T. W. Taris (Eds.), An introduction to contemporary work psychology (pp. 171– 195). Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell.

Image by Steven Jenkins, CC.

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