Sunday, March 11, 2018

Are You a Company Man?

The pressure of work varies from occupation to occupation – some are more relaxed than others in respect of the hours of intensity that are required. I remember when I moved into the consulting sector in my late 20’s having to work 16 hour days at times, especially when we were analyzing a potential client before the ‘project pitch’. It was exhilarating and exhausting at the same time – yet I have no regrets for the intensity, it was required at that particular time and I learnt so much at the same time.
Fortunately it wasn’t ‘constant’ and to some extent there was a work life balance over time – and as you ‘earned your stripes’ in the industry from a ‘grunt’ (as us new consultants were called) climbing the ladder to project manager and above, the intensity shifted from ‘hours’ to ‘strategic output and relationship building’. So there is a time and a place for ‘intensity’ in some industries, within the career life-cycle.
Yet in some other industries there seems to be a slight contradiction between the concept of finding that ‘work life balance’ and how some organizations ‘drive’ their employees. Erin Reid and Lakshmi Ramarajan mention in their 2016 article how “tales of time-hungry organizations – from Silicon Valley to Wall Street and from London to Hong Kong – abound. Managers routinely overload their subordinates, contact them outside of business hours, and make last minute requests for additional work. To satisfy those demand, employees arrive early, stay late, pull all-nighters, work weekends, and remain tied to their electronic devices 24/7. And those who are unable – or unwilling – to respond, typically get penalized,” (p.86).
This is the ‘new’ world we live in. Since the financial crisis job security has been a key concern for most employees. The financial crisis brought with it a constant stream of job losses, which hurt the life’s of hundreds of thousands of people around the globe, where many have never recovered. The new demands put on employees are based on the simple principle that if you’re not prepared to do it – there are hundreds of people ready to take your place. So fit in or ship out.
Reid and Ramarajan suggest that “many people manage the pressure to be fully devoted to work by simply giving in and conforming. Indeed, at one consulting firm among the companies we studied, 43% of those people interviewed fell into this group. In their quest to succeed on the job, ‘accepters’ prioritize their work identities and sacrifice or significantly suppress other meaningful aspects of who they are. People we spoke to across professions told us, somewhat ruefully, of giving up dreams of being civically engaged, running marathons, or getting deeply involved in their family lives,” (p.87).
But this group have another secret – they’re not motivated to go beyond the basics. They will do their job – work the crazy hours and sacrifice their personal life – but they won’t be committed to the organization or be innovators and influencers. They look forward to the day they can either find a better job or safe enough to get their life back.
Reid and Ramarajan mention “another strategy employed by another group of workers is to devote time to non-work activities – but under the organizations radar. At the consulting firm (mentioned above) 27% of the studies participants fell into this group. These people were ‘passing’ – a term originally used by sociologist Erving Goffman to describe how people try to hide personal characteristics that might stigmatize them and subject them to discrimination. Consultants who were successful at passing as ideal workers received performance ratings that were just as high as those given to peers who genuinely embraced the 24/7 culture, and colleagues perceived them as being ‘always on’,” (p. 87.)
What’s sad about this group is that they are living a lie and apparently getting away with it. There’s nothing healthy about this group – to themselves or the organization – though both probably see this as a win-win, it’s actually a lose-lose as integrity and transparency have gone right out of the window. They are passing themselves off as company men or women – yet devoting time to non-work activities without being noticed. They will ‘sell’ this game playing as a survival tactic, but if you sacrifice integrity for survival in business, what have you really accomplished and what type of person have you become.
Yet Reid and Ramarajan highlight how “not everyone wants to ‘pass’ – or can play the game of passing – and some who initially revert to ‘passing’ grow frustrated with this strategy over time. These people cope by openly sharing other parts of their lives and by asking for changes to the structure of their work, such as reduced schedules and other formal accommodations. At the consulting firm, 30% of those interviewed pursued this strategy – identified as ‘revealing’. Although it’s often assumed that those who resist the pressure to be ideal workers are primarily women with families, we have not encountered enormous gender differences in our research. Data from the consulting firm showed that fewer than half of the women were ‘revealers,’ while more than a quarter of men were,” (p.88).
Employees should be able to be ‘revealers’ at any organization – as the concept of revealing links with the concept of transparency. This is the kind of organization culture leaders used to strive for – but it seems that standards are dropping in this regard. It’s in an organizations interests to offer an environment that supports a fair work-life balance; because if you do the rewards are best for everyone. The employee is motivated, more healthy, focused and energized and the organizations reaps these rewards through increased commitment, innovation, productivity and optimized sustainable growth.
Reid and Ramarajan found, for example, that “most organizations leave it to the employees to set boundaries between their work and non-work lives – often with the best intentions. When Netflix offered unlimited time off, for example, managers thought they were treating their people like ‘grown-ups.’ But proving complete freedom can heighten employees’ fears that their choices will signal a lack of commitment. Without clear direction, many employees simply default to the ideal-worker expectation, suppressing the need to live more balanced lives,” (p.90).
Sudden change can often be viewed with suspicion by employees. If a tough organization suddenly offers unlimited time off – the employee’s natural reaction is to wonder what the catch is. Are they trying to see who’s not committed to the organization and then the next thing you know they are downsizing and you’re the first one asked to pack your desk and leave. Organizations have to have a genuine trusting and transparent culture before you can start offering unlimited time-off. Change has to be managed, especially when trying to change from a distrusting to a trusting culture – it will take a long time and must be approached small steps at a time.
Reid and Ramarajan conclude by highlighting how “the pressure to be an ideal worker is at an all-time high, but so are the costs to both individuals and their employees. Moreover, the experiences of those who are able to pass as ideal workers suggest superhuman dedication may not always be necessary for organizational success. By valuing all aspects of people’s identities, rewarding work output instead of work time, and taking steps to protect employees’ personal lives, leaders can begin to unravel the ideal-worker myth that has become woven into the fabric of their organizations. And that will enhance employees’ resilience, their creativity, and their satisfaction on the job,” (p.90).
Reid, E. and Ramarajan, L. (2016). Managing the High Intensity Workplace. Harvard Business School, June, p.84-90.