The Workplace Martyr

Significance and Connectedness

In a poorly functioning workplace there is usually a Martyr or in some cases a group of Martyrs, they can be painful and disruptive but in short quickly resolved. So what is the definition of a Martyr?

Oxford Dictionary Definition is as follows: A person who displays or exaggerates their discomfort or distress in order to obtain sympathy.

In simplest terms it is a person or group of people who adopt a victim role. Now as with every behaviour you need to examine the intention rather than the behaviour itself. Despite how difficult this can be to do with particularly frustrating behaviours. Remember to keep an eye out for your transference (explained here).

When a person adopts the role of the workplace Martyr, in short there are two reasons for this and they work in combination. They are not meeting their need for:

A – Workplace or Personal Significance

B – Workplace or Personal Connectedness

The correlation between Connectedness and Significance?

All human beings need to feel connected and significant, each to varying degrees. There is nothing wrong with this and it is a human need. The issue arises when someone is not able to meet their need to feel connected and significant through resourceful means. They then switch to unresourceful methods.

Let me explain how these two needs correlate with one another. They work like an elevator tied together with a rope. As one increases so does the other and as one decreases so does the other.

Resourceful Connectedness and Significance

If a person was to start playing a team sport for recreational purposes whether they like it or not they will become more connected with people in their world. They will increase their social interactions and as a result have an increased sense of connectedness.

Now with that comes social acceptance, engagement and relationship development on many different levels. This in turn generates a greater sense of significance within themselves and in turn greater significance bolsters self-esteem allowing for more opportunities to develop connectedness and so on and so on.

This is why team sports are paramount in the development of young people as it is a safe and resourceful way to develop self-esteem and further social skills. The key is finding the “flash point” for significance and contribution and at what stage does this his become a self-nurturing action.

Un-resourceful Significance and Connectedness

A beautiful example of un resourceful significance and connectedness is that of the Martyr. When a person plays the workplace Martyr there are a number of things happening. Perhaps, overwhelm in correlation to overbalanced certainty and uncertainty however the primary drivers are Connectedness and Significance.

When a Martyr adopts the role, they immediately generate interest in their cause within the workplace. People come to them to support and they generate increased levels of:

A – Connectedness

B – Significance

Now this works in the immediate however the key component of this behaviours success is the person must remain a victim. They will not necessarily lose all the connectedness and significance that they have achieved when they remove themselves from the role however they will lose some. More importantly they believe they will lose it all and be on their own again.

So thus the unresourceful pattern is developed. The Martyr must continue to play role of the Martyr in order to meet their core needs. However this is not sustainable, people become tired of running to a cause that will not change, the significance decreases and the connectedness wanes. Thus the unresourceful behaviour INCREASES to achieve this need once again. And so on and so on.

How do I resolve this?

Quite simply the easiest way to overcome the role of the Martyr in your workplace is a two stage approach. You must support the person to achieve significance and contribution in a resourceful fashion until flashpoint. Approx 30 minute resolution time.

Step one

Empathetically address behaviours with the person. This is not a “you did this you did that session”. You must come from a genuine heartfelt space of concern. “So what’s going on? It seems like work has been getting on top of you lately and as your boss it’s my job to help. What’s up?”

Continue in this vein and you will strike an emotional chord with the person and they will open their overwhelming concerns with you. Perhaps family, perhaps self worth in the workplace, etc. Do not respond emotively and do not attempt to save the person, allow them to be present in their emotion and repeat their statements back to them so they can rationalize their internal dialogue externally.

Step two

Once the emotion has cleared and the person has stabilised emotively request how they would like to proceed to resolve this. Keep in mind their suggestions however in this moment you are seeking to support the engagement of resourceful significance and connectedness. Some good examples are as follows.

Delegation of a role within the team that addresses their attributes. Work wellness group, Practitioners networking, journal club, up to date FB posting etc..

The key here is framing a new role that you wish the person to complete in a way that they will feel more connected and significant within the team. Bear in mind that the person themselves may be dealing with a lot outside of work so this may need close monitoring.

Socratically question your employee regarding the development of this role. The key is you want their realization about the role to be that of a social and revered status within the team. When you have achieved this, you have resolved the issue…. Momentarily.


So old habits will die hard. Before closing the conversation with the employee simply ask permission to bring this topic up again if you see any changes or behaviour presenting itself in the workplace. You must then, keep to your word, call a spade a spade and regularly set the boundaries for the resourceful behaviour and unresourceful behaviours in your workplace.

As always this is something that whilst written simply and systemized requires astute emotional intelligence. You can’t make things worse by trying to help though, so the one take away is hold the heart space for your employee and observe their intentions not their behaviours.

Speak soon,

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