Most of the truly miserable people you meet in life aren’t stupid or unambitious, traits we’ve been taught to associate with an unhappy life. Rather, the unhappiest people I know are also some of the smartest and hardest-working. But they’re also martyrs, a dangerous and under-appreciated workplace pathology.
Approximately every tenth highly intelligent person I meet is a martyr. Martyrs have an addiction to making themselves miserable for the sake of others. It’s not necessary for this misery to be for anyone’s benefit — it simply needs to be understood by the martyr that they are performing a sacrifice at the feet of another person or group.
Paul Graham’s How to Lose Time and Money makes a great corollary point — specifically, that driven people rarely waste time by sitting on the couch watching TV, but by doing useless work. I’d like to take that a step further. A number of smart people are Martyrs, who draw their willpower from Sisyphean quests, enjoying difficult and painful situations for the sake of the pain endured. Their equivalent of praise is the feeling of deep guilt they can inspire in others.
Martyrdom is chronic and can impact someone’s strategic decisions. I’ve seen martyrs join organizations doomed to fail simply to have a steady stream of martyr-ready situations. Playing the martyr role is addictive, and situations in which a martryr can work extreme hours, take the blame for far-reaching problems, and prostrate themselves at the feet of bosses are their crack cocaine.
Martyrs paralyze organizations. I’ve written about the huge influence guilt has on communication, but it deserves restating. The guilt that martyrs inspire among their peers and superiors destroy organizational structure and productivity. When a colleague is going to fall on any sword within eyesight, there’s a natural disincentive within a team to hide the swords — that is, to cover up the issues and problems that arise in any organization. Martyrs inspire guilt, and guilt is a terrible emotion to inspire in a group. Guilt saps enthusiasm, sweeps problems under the rug and eliminates any willingness to take risks.
Everyone avoids the dull, the lazy and the untrustworthy. By their very definition, martyrs are none of these things — yet they should be avoided to the same degree. Martyrdom is at best saddening and at worst contagious and destructive.