Multiple Hat Syndrome and how to manage it

Janice Chan
May 9, 2018 · 5 min read
Several hats arranged on a vertical hat rack, some felt hats and some straw hats. | Photo from Pixabay

“Finally, I know what you do!” said my dad after I started my current job as a technical trainer. This is the most specialized job I’ve ever had — primarily because I’m now at a very large organization.

“I wear multiple hats” has become synonymous with working at a non profit — even though there is a wide range of non profit organizations and this is often true at any small organization. However, let’s not ignore the fact that donor focus on overhead at non profit organizations rather than actual ROI is an exacerbating factor.

Back to Multiple Hat Syndrome.

Multiple Hat Syndrome* afflicts individuals in environments that allow symptoms to fester and thus can affect the entire organization. Symptoms include:

  • That constant, nagging feeling you’ve forgotten something critical
  • Getting mired in the weeds and never making time to step back
  • Hamstringing your strengths to work on a lot of areas outside your wheelhouse
  • Spending even more time at the office to compensate
  • Burnout
  • You get the drift

This is not entirely a bad thing. Some people find wearing multiple hats a great way to engage with a wide variety of interests and skill sets. Even in my current role, and in a large organization that has a lot of specialists on hand, I’ve still become the go-to person for all sorts of random questions. And I’m okay with that. Being aware of the upstream and downstream makes me better at anything that I do, because I’m better able to alert the right person at the right time or be proactive about potential issues.

It is, however, a problem when it’s not supported. If someone asking me a question becomes another hat on my head, then yeah, that gets old real fast.

However, let’s acknowledge that there are many people who would rather narrow their focus. People who enjoy going deep on a particular area — and they’re really good at it. The more we can remove the clutter from their plates, the further they’ll be able to go.

No matter how large the organization, there are always going to be tasks that are not full jobs. And there will always be people who would be bored doing only one thing! Wearing multiple hats is not ever going to go away fully. If you support it and are intentional with your business practices, it can even be a good thing. Here are a few new approaches you might take.

Acknowledge that people are wearing multiple hats.

People need to be recognized for what they are contributing — all of it, not just what is readily visible. Ask people what projects they’re working on, or what maintenance tasks they perform that keep the organization moving forward. Call out the multiple hats they are wearing; acknowledge and appreciate those contributions.

Rotate or reshuffle hats.

Often the people wearing the most hats are simply the people who have been on the team the longest. We add and we add and we never step back to take a look at the whole structure. Schedule times to revisit this periodically. Are we making the best use of our team’s talents? Can some responsibilities be shuffled or rotated? What is old hat to one person might be a growth opportunity to someone else or an interesting avenue to explore.

Make it known that asking for help is an option.

Sometimes we need to remind people they can ask for help or to provide some possibilities as to what this may look like.

For example, you might have a staff member who frequently designs marketing materials because they are the only person who sort of knows how to use the design program. However, they would rather focus on innovative ideas for communications strategy and, since they’re not a graphic designer, that type of work can eat up a lot of time. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to hire a team that has these skillsets? Or maybe you’re trying to do data analysis and your team member is eager to learn but is still learning. Maybe you can support their climb up the learning curve by bringing in collaborative team temporarily, who can both do some of the heavy lifting and help build your team’s capacity.

Now, independent contractors should not take the place of full-time or even part-time employees. This is not about saving money (or “reducing overhead”) by not paying for benefits or payroll tax. (Here are some best practices on classifying workers and other considerations.)

It should be about flexibility — both the freelancer’s ability to work independently, and your organization’s ability to add expertise or capacity when the need arises without creating a permanent position for a temporary or occasional need. (Not to say that you may not start off hiring a freelancer and later realize it makes more sense to create a permanent position.)

Flexibility goes both ways.

Speaking of flexibility, if you’re asking your employees to be flexible in wearing multiple hats, then be flexible in realizing that employees might have different needs for each of those hats.

For example, while they go through their manager for budget approval on most things, they get to manage the budget for something for which they are the organizational owner. Or this could mean allowing people to work remotely as needed for certain projects, when they want to be able to focus. Even if the overall job can’t be narrowed, you can give them the space to delve more deeply into a particular area without getting distracted by colleagues dropping by with requests. Or by the metaphorical fires that could be put out by multiple other people in the office who would step up if their usual firefighter wasn’t on hand.

Respect each hat.

Consider revising job descriptions or adjusting compensation. Seek out professional development opportunities for each of those hats, or other ways to provide support.

And those hats some people end up wearing hats simply because they’ve been on the team for so long that this has been forgotten? Is it time to retire some hats? Maybe not, but let’s make that an active choice.

  • Please note that an English degree, watching lots of ER, and annual first aid training for many years does not make me anything close to any realm of medical professional.
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Janice Chan

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Writer, problem solver, project manager, nonprofit information pro. Always asking how we can do this better. Twitter: @curiositybone |

The Nonprofit Revolution

Nonprofits are badass, and so are the people working at them. We're gathering stories covering real and authentic perspectives in the nonprofit sector. Join the revolution at