The Knowledge Worker’s Dilemma

Whatever, they’re paying me for it.”

Such are the words of the modern knowledge worker, one who commands comparatively high compensation, but is being given work that is “beneath” their skills and experience.

On the surface, this “easy money” is tempting (and in small doses, harmless). However, the danger is that in a world of democratized information, automation, and artificial intelligence, the knowledge worker’s experience and capabilities need to be constantly improving, not in statis.

The Knowledge Worker’s Dilemma applies to both salaried employees as well as freelancers.

With salaried employees, if you are assigned work that does not build your skills, you may gripe to a manager who in turn may accuse you of not being a “team player”. Of course, occasionally pitching in is part of being a team player, but when it becomes a pattern, you risk moving into a negative spiral, where your unique skills collect dust, and you lose the opportunity to learn new ones, putting you further behind the curve.

With freelancers, the Siren call of easy projects are appealing to manage the ups-and-downs of independent work. However, the Knowledge Worker’s Dilemma is even more acute with freelancers because they do not have the managers or internal support networks that the salaried employee has, and therefore must be even more diligent and disciplined in their self-management.

The Knowledge Worker’s Dilemma, then, is: Saying “no” to an easy project may cause discord in your team or reduce short-term income. On the other hand, continually saying “yes” to these same projects tends to reduce your skill development over time, thereby eroding your longer-term income potential.

So how do you effectively negotiate the Knowledge Worker’s Dilemma?

  • Say yes to broad projects but turn down the portions that are not aligned with your skill set or do not position you for professional growth. You may find yourself saying something to the effect of “I would love take this on, but only if we can bring on another resource that can handle the XYZ tasks so I can focus on higher value elements and we don’t wind up overpaying.”
  • Be proactive in having conversations with your clients and resource managers by communicating your unique capabilities, telling them how you want your career to develop, and how they can get the most out of your skills. Remember that nobody knows you better than yourself, and only you know what type of work you want to be doing.
  • Regularly set aside time for professional development, and track it, just as you would for billable hours. If you are a manager, you should require that employees devote time towards professional development.

As is true with so many other things in life, the Knowledge Worker’s Dilemma can only be won by intelligently managing today for tomorrow.