'It's a Trap!': How to Identify and Deal with the Office Overcommitter

By Alex Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP May 2, 2016
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Having a passion for one's work is the secret ingredient to employee engagement. If you've ever worked with someone with a clear passion, you most likely felt envy, rooted in a desire to hold the same kind of passion for your own work. Even if you enjoyed what you did, it wasn't to the same degree. Only passion can push you far enough to make a difference.

But when passion for one's work goes too far, it's not so positive. Too much engagement can lead to overcommitment.

The Office Overcommitter is a special breed of passionate co-worker, who, to the chagrin of everyone else, has an out-of-control infatuation for pet projects and personal missions. An unusual mix of joyous collaborator and forceful champion, this employee possesses an intensity so strong it melts both opponents' resolve and good common sense. This person is the workplace equivalent of the irrationally passionate beauty-pageant parent or face-painted sports fanatic.

Under the guise of the Office Overcommitter's passion, a trap is set for colleagues. The "passion player" will insist, for instance, on pushing into the stratosphere a project whose pitfalls are obvious. But such passion seems to force your hand … to take on that project as your own … even while that voice inside is screaming "Run!"

How can you spot overcommitment before you are trapped? Relationship Management is the key HR competency at play here. Build up your proficiency in Relationship Management and you'll be able to handle the situation effectively, serving as a good business partner while remaining true to your strategic principles.

Like any proficiency-building exercise, the first step is learning to identify the problem. Three dead giveaways can help you find your Office Overcommitter:

  1. A wide-open "value" valve. Office Overcommitters tend to overstate the value of their core interests. What they're working on may be important to part of the organization's effectiveness, but they view it as absolutely critical. Their projects always "need" or "must have" something more. They always try to enlist others into adopting their mission, instead of contributing to a shared mission. Don’t be lured into their trap. Your own mission, as a great business partner, is to evaluate all opportunities strictly on their merits.
  2. Ultimately, it's ultimatums. Office Overcommitters work hard to get their way, lobbying everyone around them to build support. But when they don't succeed, they may throw tantrums, doling out threats and ultimatums. Don’t succumb. Call their bluff and stand your ground. Or take the off ramp and simply exit from their perspective. Giving in to Overcommitters' ultimatums derails a shared mission and eliminates the potential for future collaboration.
  3.  Let's have a pity party. Office Overcommitters want you to feel their passion. They seek out co-workers who share their view of the world. But when colleagues disagree with their views, look out! Now they want everyone to know how badly they’ve been wronged: "Can you believe the vice president wouldn’t invest in my project?" "If only you'd taken my advice!" "Why won't anyone support this GoFundMe campaign?"     
    Nobody likes being told "no"—but Office Overcommitters are strongly averse to accepting a "no," recovering and moving on. You may even get to see a martyrdom drama worthy of an Oscar (more likely a daytime Emmy!) when others fail to see things their way. Moping and immature comments can be the worst part of dealing with Office Overcommitters.     
    But don't join the pity party. An HR professional who is competent in Relationship Management knows better than to be guilted into making bad business decisions or going along with projects that don’t align with organizational strategy.

Identifying the problem is the first step toward successful negotiation with an Office Overcommitter. The next step is developing the courage to evaluate matters objectively, without damaging relationships. Just remember: it's not your fault if a relationship eventually becomes damaged because of unreasonable office overcommitment. Admiral Akbar in "Return of the Jedi" said it best: "It’s a trap!" Make that warning your workplace mantra.

How do you handle your office's Overcmmitters? How do you flex your Relationship Management muscle, starting with identification of a problem? Do you have a great story about an epic case of office overcommitment?

Alex Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, is senior vice president of knowledge development for SHRM.

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