The phrase “shit hits the fan” has uncertain origins. Some claim it’s a descendant of a World War II adage “the garbage hit the fan.” As the Online Etymology Dictionary has it, it derives from an old poop joke. The Yale Book of Quotations doesn’t have a say on the phrase at all (though “shit happens” is attributed to Connie Eble of Chapel Hill).
In any case, people have probably heard the phrase in reference to something gone awry at work or in life. In either setting, when the shit does hit the fan, people will tend to look to the most competent person in the room to take over.
And too bad for that person. A new paper by a team of researchers from Duke University, University of Georgia, and University of Colorado looks at not only how extremely competent people are treated by their co-workers and peers, but how those people feel when, at crucial moments, everyone turns to them. They find that responsible employees are not terribly pleased about this dynamic either.
To begin, the researchers began by establishing that people do, in fact, assign more tasks to those they perceived as more competent. In a survey, participants read statements about a fictional employee “Sam”—different groups read different statements about Sam indicating how much self-control he had (self-control was used as a proxy for competence). When Sam was presented as someone with great self-control, participants expected much more of Sam’s performance at his manufacturing job. In a separate experiment, undergrads were asked to delegate essays for proofreading to other students with varying levels of self-control. Unsurprisingly those with more self-control ended up with more work assigned to them.