When asked about the downsides of being a project manager, some people would list long hours and substantial pressure. There’s no denying that the PM job may require you to make difficult calls or to log in some overtime. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s a profession that’s stressful and exhausting by design. 

On the other hand, project managers often feel overwhelmed by the amount of work they have. If you’re one of them, you might want to take a closer look at your workload and ask yourself:

Am I affected by a job creep? 

Read on to find out what job creep is and what causes it. We’ll also list steps you can take to get your work life back on track. 

What is job creep/role creep?

Job creep, also referred to as role creep, happens when one performs tasks that are outside of their role or the agreed scope of their job. 

Note that job creep may affect people working in different roles. Essentially, it means performing the tasks that should be done by other team members. For Project Managers, these tasks would usually be related to project delivery, managing the team or handling client relations. 

Michael Wellin, in his book Managing the Psychological Contract: Using the Personal Deal to Increase Business Performance, brings up a very interesting point about role creep:

Job creep involves ongoing pressure on employees to deliver more than the normal requirements of their jobs. This is a situation where the norm of reciprocity which has evolved over time no longer applies. Instead the employer is gradually increasing their requirements from employees. Behaviour and performance that was previously discretionary now becomes increasingly expected or is taken for granted by the employer. (Wellin, 2007, p. 90)

As you can see, job creep makes you work harder for a given time period (e.g. until the project’s launch), but it can also evolve into a constant situation when your employer expects you to always juggle all of these duties. It’s beneficial for project managers to identify and stop role creep or to prevent it in the first place. 

In order to better understand the phenomenon itself, let’s take a look at some common causes of job creep. 

Main causes of role creep in project management

The key factor behind job creep among project managers is the nature of their profession. Shortly speaking, other people tend to not understand that role. Elizabeth Harrin, the author of Girl’s Guide to PM, admits that people at work “often don’t get what it is that she does”. When that’s the case, the expectations towards project managers may be unreasonable. 

The notion of being the person who is “in charge of the project”, makes project managers vulnerable to role creep. After all, almost every task can be excused project-related. As a result, PMs may feel that it is ultimately up to them to deliver something, even though there are other people on the team who should be dealing with a given task. 

What if there are no people who are better equipped to perform certain duties? Job creep may also occur as a consequence of understaffing and poor HR forecasting. If there’s no one to complete a task, the PM often ends up doing it. 

Project managers may feel the urge to jump in and help with production tasks. The pressure is on them since they’re communicating the outcome of the project to stakeholders. Aleksandar Olic put it nicely when he wrote:  

This can lead to identity crisis. They can’t directly control how a website or an app will work or look like, but they are held responsible for the final result. Also, when it comes to presenting the work, they are expected to know and talk about everything like they were the ones to create it.

Yet another factor that makes project managers exposed to the role creep, is that every project is different and, as such, requires some versatility on the PM’s part. While that versatility can often be limited to using appropriate tools and techniques, it could also lead PMs into taking on a wider scope of tasks because they feel that their project requires that. If that scope gets wider and wider as the project goes on, we are talking about job creep.  

Finally, experience on the job turns out to be very important for project managers. This is also true when it comes to role creep. While inexperienced PMs may have very strong theoretical background they may struggle with juggling multiple duties and recognizing the role creep. 

How to avoid job creep?

Job creep in project management is preventable. Even if you’re already feeling its consequences, you can still take some remedial measures. 

The fundamental action is to make sure everybody is on the same page regarding your role in the project. By everybody we mean:

Outlining your responsibility and even giving examples of things that are outside of your role will help you set expectations regarding your performance. Ideally, you should do that at the beginning of the project (or when you negotiate a job offer), but you can also tackle that once you notice the negative consequences of role creep.  

What’s out of the scope for a PM role can slightly differ from project to project, but if you need inspiration for listing your core duties, check out this article from the Digital Project Manager. 

Once your responsibilities and potential tasks are outlined—you know what to work on—it’s time to establish some rules about the how. Think about your time and try to protect it: set working hours during which you’re available to assist your team, communicate your days off, plan what to do when your workload becomes difficult to manage.  

Read more work-life balance tips for project managers here.

You may have noticed by now that most of these tips for avoiding role creep have to do with proper communication. Project transparency will help you keep your workload in check but also prevent your team members from job creep. Increase the visibility of your and your team’s tasks, by taking advantage resource calendars and timesheets. Project management and resource management tools will help you plan the work efficiently but also match tasks with people having the most appropriate skills. 

Speaking of abilities and competences: as a project manager, you may feel perfectly fit to do something (say, design a web form) because of your past professional experiences or personal interests. And in rare cases PMs may simultaneously be responsible for some aspects of the production as well. If your role is not hybrid, however, stick to your PM duties for the sake of your project success. 

This is not to say that your design or code is of poor quality. It’s not necessarily the case. However, when you devote effort to “extracurricular” tasks, you have less time to meet your core duties. 

The final advice will be especially helpful for project managers, who have just recently started working in the industry. While you’re certainly qualified for the role, keep in mind that there’s a learning curve here. It’s especially true about things that are less tangible: Job creep would be one of them. 

Chances are that there are more experienced project managers working at your company. Perhaps there’s even a mentoring scheme in place? If not, come up with an idea for knowledge-sharing meetings. You can also participate in PM events and conferences organized by local communities. 

Even if you’re not able to take part in face-to-face meetups, you still have access to useful resources. Follow channels and blogs devoted to project management and created by fellow PM practitioners. . Here’s a couple of posts from our own platform that you might find especially valuable:

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