The phrase “shit hits the fan” has uncertain origins. Some claim it’s a descendant of a World War II adage “the garbage hit the fan.” As the Online Etymology Dictionary has it, it derives from an old poop joke. The Yale Book of Quotations doesn’t have a say on the phrase at all (though “shit happens” is attributed to Connie Eble of Chapel Hill).
In any case, people have probably heard the phrase in reference to something gone awry at work or in life. In either setting, when the shit does hit the fan, people will tend to look to the most competent person in the room to take over.
And too bad for that person. A 2015 paper by a team of researchers from Duke University, University of Georgia, and University of Colorado looks at not only how extremely competent people are treated by their co-workers and peers, but how those people feel when, at crucial moments, everyone turns to them. They find that responsible employees are not terribly pleased about this dynamic either.
To begin, the researchers began by establishing that people do, in fact, assign more tasks to those they perceived as more competent. In a survey, participants read statements about a fictional employee “Sam”—different groups read different statements about Sam indicating how much self-control he had (self-control was used as a proxy for competence). When Sam was presented as someone with great self-control, participants expected much more of Sam’s performance at his manufacturing job. In a separate experiment, undergrads were asked to delegate essays for proofreading to other students with varying levels of self-control. Unsurprisingly those with more self-control ended up with more work assigned to them.
“People ask high self-control people to do more for perfectly logical reasons—because they think that those who successfully demonstrate high (vs. low) self-control will perform better and accomplish more. So it is a reasonable thing to do, from the perspective of the partner, the manager, the coworker,” says Christy Zhou Koval, a Ph.D student at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and lead author of the study.“But for the actor, it can feel like a burden. Why should you do more work for the same reward, while your less capable coworker coasts along with lower expectations and work?”
A separate experiment found that participants not only assigned more tasks to the go-getters—but underestimated how much work it would take to get the job done. "What looks easy from the outside may not feel that easy on the inside," says Gráinne Fitzsimons, one of the co-authors of the study.
The researchers then tried to understand how these expectations play out in real life. In a survey of more than 400 employees, they found that high performers were not only aware that they were giving more at work—they rightly assumed that their managers and co-workers didn’t understand how hard it was for them, and thus felt unhappy about being given more tasks. Further, in a survey that was completed by more than 100 couples, partners who had greater self-control said they also felt burden and fatigue from being relied on more at home. (Interestingly, the results of these studies were not broken down by gender, though this certainly opens up a new angle for future study.)
“This disconnect in how we see ourselves and how others see us can create problems in our relationships, both at home and at work,” says Koval. “Part of the issue is that people with high self-control are probably less likely than others to complain; they’re just likelier to ‘suck it up’ and do the extra work. But our findings suggest that they probably feel frustrated by that, and less satisfied with their relationships with others who do ‘over-rely’ on them.”
While it makes sense to rely more on competent people, Koval says that it’s important for co-workers and partners to recognize how much stress they are putting on those people by doing so. In the workplace, she recommends giving rewards to the responsible employees. Similarly she recommends that romantic partners pitch in, and give credit where it’s due.
“In the workplace, managers should be careful to give the highest quality work and best opportunities to the most capable employees, and give the lower quality but time consuming work to less capable employees,” says Koval. “If someone is doing more than his fair share, compensate him for it. If not, he may ultimately leave and seek recognition elsewhere. Similarly, in our personal relationships, we should recognize that just because our high-ability partners can do something for us, doesn’t mean that we should let them. And if they do help us, we should recognize it and thank them for it. Otherwise, they too may end up feeling burdened by us, and less satisfied—and that should be the last thing we want to do to a good employee or a good partner.”
Bourree Lam is a former staff writer at The Atlantic. She was previously the editor of Freakonomics.com.