If you can't muster enthusiasm for a co-worker's favorite undertaking, here are some ways to bow out—gently but firmly
Where I live, there are a large number of Dog People. I don't mean people who have dogs—I have two little pups myself, but I'm not one of these Dog People I'm referring to. I adore my two pooches, yet I understand that they're dogs and not people. You can tell a Dog Person by the way he expects everyone else to treat his dog.
When someone's dog bounds up to me, jumps up, and puts its muddy paws on my new silk blouse, then grabs my arm in its jaws, I don't want to hear the dog's owner (in my town we would say "guardian") say, "Oh, he doesn't bite." I want the person to say, "I'm so terribly sorry." But that would never occur to Dog People, because they want you to care about the dog they love so much, even though you don't.
The same thing happens at work all the time. People get immersed in their projects, and they want you to jump into the pool with them. Trouble is, you've got your own projects, and every issue that every one of your co-workers is tackling is just not all that fascinating. But sometimes it's hard to get that message across.
Your Project Puts Me to Sleep
I worked as a human resources person in a company that was launching a huge quality initiative. One of the quality-department members was keen to get me involved in her companywide newsletter. I tried to find space in my brain to be interested in the project. I read some of her past newsletters, and they put me to sleep. She met with me several times to get my input on the newsletter's design, its name, and its mission statement. Finally, I tried to bow out. "I'm so sorry," I said. "I am swamped. I'm not sure I'm adding much value to your process."
"But your SUPPORT is what's so critical!" she insisted. "If management doesn't SUPPORT the newsletter, what does that say about our company?"
Well, it might say that the newsletter puts me to sleep. But I didn't mention that, because it would have been rude. I suggested she poll some of the employees and ask them what they really wanted in a newsletter, if they wanted one at all.
The newsletter died away, but co-workers' pet projects keep on coming. One friend of mine was invited to an endless series of meetings concerning a new product-numbering system. She didn't want to offend the project leader, but she finally had to decline. "Oh, you can't drop out!" cried the project head. "If you do, everyone else will drop out, too!"
Let Them Down Easy
This love-me-love-my-project issue reminds us that the modern knowledge-based workplace is a hybrid business-social environment. We have work to do, but we also have relationships to maintain. We don't want to offend our colleagues by telling them their top priorities mean nothing to us. We want to SUPPORT them, after all. So here's my advice: Be honest, but choose your words carefully. Say something like this: "I can see why this is a priority for you, but unfortunately I have an overfull plate as it is. I can be an informal sounding board and chime in when you need me, but I can't sign on to this initiative because if I do, I won't be able to give it my full attention."
As for the project leader who worried about a wholesale abandonment, my friend had the right answer for her that day. "Sarah," she said, "if you're worried about people dropping out of the task force, let's figure out why. Maybe this project is not as critical to the division's success as we once thought. Let's go back to square one and figure out why the rest of the team isn't as pumped about it as you are." The point she made—very nicely —is that perhaps the can't-be-bothered majority had a point.
It's easy to take an idea and run with it, way past the point of logic. It's wise to stop and revisit priorities every now and then. If everyone else on the team doesn't love your project as much as you do, maybe it's because the project is a dog, and you can't expect people to love your dog the way you do.