At Work, What Tasks Are “Unreasonable”?

Marcus J. Fila, Ph.D.
4 min readFeb 26, 2021

In my previous post I had asked Where do your work expectations come from?”, and discussed “professional identity” as a major part of the answer.

For a quick re-cap, I touched on how we can be torn between two half-truths: that are all people are unique from one another, and that we are all the same (i.e., “XYZ’s behavior is just human nature”). I posited that rather than one or the other of these positions being completely true, we each of have a constellation of identities in our private and professional lives that we share with others in the same role (i.e., father, tax accountant, Floridian). Although we are not identical people to others who share those identities, they create a strong sense of overlap between people, which can lead to a shared sense of what those identities are, how they are likely to be experienced, and what we will do in them.

Professional identity is intimately tied to tasks, roles, and goals. This, is a predominant source of where work expectations come from: Normative experiences of what it is to be a tax accountant, a management professor, a hospital administrator, or Fortune 500 CEO.

Expectations begin being formed in our first role, and in conversations with others within that role. The normative expectations which form our professional identity are then refined by time and experience in that role; and…here’s the kicker… in comparisons we make between different jobs performing that role. So, if you’ve held five positions as a senior financial adviser, you have a pretty well formed set of norms about what it is to be a senior financial adviser. Other senior financial advisors will likely have a very, very similar set of norms, even though you are not identical people.

So, what is an unreasonable task, and how is that related to normative expectations which form professional identity, and to work stress?

Unreasonable tasks are not necessarily “hard” tasks, or having to do something too much, or too often — those are work overload problems. Tasks are unreasonable if they fall outside of normal boundaries of expectations for a given role, or position. For example, a company driver being expected to drive their bosses’ children around town; a surgeon being expected to change bedpans; a paralegal being expected to host a client…

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Marcus J. Fila, Ph.D.

Work Stress speaker, researcher, author, and consultant to organizations and individuals. Psychologist, and management professor. Visit easeworkstress.com.