Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Managing’ Category

Meritocracy: The Lie

I’ve never been comfortable with this whole meritocracy in the workplace thing. Not when I was a corporate cog, not when I was in charge of HR, not when I consult with organizations, not when I read about and observe the world past and present. I have finally put my finger on why I can’t stand the whole concept. It’s a lie.

In theory, people advance in companies (or society) because they score well on specific business metrics. Targets that are exceeded can earn you a promotion or a raise. Not meeting your goals can cause your career to stall or get you fired. As I said, that’s the theory. In reality, elaborate systems are put in place to measure all sorts of things and individual performance is plugged into the formula and, voila, it doesn’t matter in the end. That person’s fate will have little to do with how they scored. That’s the dirty secret that happens in performance management review sessions. But companies feel virtuous in public that they are a meritocracy.

I’ll give you two true stories from my HR days.

Chris was a talented and smart VP who was handed a failing part of the business. The executive thinking was: it’s so far in the red, we’ll give this pile of crap to someone we aren’t sure of in the first place, if they fail we’ll close that business down and Chris will be gone. Within 18 months the business was in the black and growing. Staff from around the building were putting in transfers in hopes of working for Chris. By every measure, Chris had not only exceeded all expectations but surprised the executives.

In a true meritocracy, Chris would have been promoted or given a huge bonus. Instead, Chris was let go in the midst of a business downturn. Hmmm, wouldn’t you want people who had a track record of pulling the business out of the jaws of defeat? No matter how hard I advocated to keep Chris, nothing worked.

Oh, did I mention that Chris is a woman? Oh, and she’s African American. Might that have mattered? You betcha. What happened to all the stellar metrics?

Pat was revered around the company as the go-to person in the finance department. As the number two person to the CFO, Pat was more accessible and helpful to everyone, including the CEO. During succession planning discussions, Pat was “ready now” to replace the CFO when the opportunity came around. All the boxes had been checked, all the metrics were perfect. When the CFO slot opened up, Pat was not selected. Instead, someone who was politically tight with the CEO with much less relevant experience was put into the role. Pat immediately began job hunting and quickly landed the number one position at a different company. What happened to meritocracy in this case?

Oh, I forgot to mention that Pat is a gay man. The new CFO resembles the CEO; a white straight man. Work hard and you will be rewarded? I think not.

Even in cases where sexual orientation, gender or race were not factors, I heard a million excuses why someone who had proven their merit did not ascend into the role they were being groomed for. Too quiet. Not aggressive enough. I just don’t get them. I like this other person better. Tenure needs to be rewarded. They’ll leave if we don’t promote them. Ostensibly, a meritocracy with clear measures will motivate people to do their best and earn new roles. In reality, people knock themselves out to excel and, in the end, the reasons why someone succeeds or not are as arbitrary as ever.

We would be better off not pretending. Companies should declare the truth: We do need to measure performance in lots of ways and there are other factors that go into advancement. This is not an objective exercise. Subjectivity still reigns and it is often unfair. Just like real life.

Monologues and Dialogues

Pop quiz. Which would you rather….

  • Sit in an hour long meeting just listening or speaking up when you have something to say?
  • Being told by your boss how you are performing or having a conversation about how things are going?
  • Work on a team with a leader who doles out directives or contributing to the planning and shaping of the project?
  • Attend a conference where you soak up the expert’s wisdom or having a chance to ask her questions?

Chances are you would rather be more engaged but you still appreciate taking in information too. If you scored yourself “it depends” then you see this as situational. Good answer. But I guarantee that most of us spend way too much time on the receiving end of a monologue that we are desperate to shut off. “Make it stop” is what we are screaming in our heads. Politeness is what we display. After all, we still want a job when this person comes up for air.

Set aside the experts we love to listen to for a TED talk. Think about daily work situations. Remember a time (probably 5 minutes ago) when someone dominated a conversation; s/he cut others off, talked over people, didn’t ask a single question, displayed arrogance or aggression. What did you make of this behavior? This person is insecure, loves a good fight, has no emotional intelligence, needs to be the smartest person in the room, needs to show you that s/he is the authority on the topic, is just a royal pain in the ass? It doesn’t actually matter which of these conclusions are true. It is more about the lasting impression this person leaves. We will ascribe all kinds of crazy to him/her. And we will try to minimize our time with him/her. The reason: grown-ups and professionals do not appreciate monologues when dialogue would be so much more effective.

Monologues have the impact of cutting off conversation. Almost all work is more dynamic and productive when there is dialogue; the back and forth exchange of ideas and questions to arrive in new spaces that weren’t there at the beginning of the conversation. Monologues don’t go anywhere. The language tends to be “I this” and “you need to that”. It is experienced as condescending and frustrating. When you try to interrupt the lecture with questions or different opinions, you quickly realize this is fruitless or painful. “You don’t know what you are talking about” or the person not even acknowledging that you have spoken.

People who see themselves as The Expert or The Smart One favor monologues. What could we lowly knuckleheads offer? Of course, this masks insecurities and comes off with loads of arrogance. Sadly, they don’t appreciate that most of us know that the smartest among us never have to broadcast it.

Some people prefer to be constantly in charge and in control of the environment; further signs of psychological vulnerabilities. This presents a dilemma for everyone else who is hungry for collaboration and shared responsibilities.

The bottom line for those who are more comfortable delivering monologues and cutting off all conversation is that they have low tolerance for being challenged. They fear being diminished or stupid or unable to respond to a new thought. Their anxieties loom larger than any likely reality so their behavior persists. It’s a shame, really.

The ability to engage in a lively dialogue can be the envy of these one-way communicators. A good leader asks questions, is curious about others and their ideas, enjoys riffing and generally finds other people interesting. They have a ton of experience that indicates that conversations and debates yield better solutions, ideas and outcomes. They also know that professionals are more satisfied under these circumstances.

If you are someone who struggles with dialogues, get some help. Engage a coach or mentor who can teach you some of these skills. If you sense that this is a life-long pattern that taps some deeper sore spots, get a therapist. Chances are your friends and family don’t enjoy this behavior any more than your colleagues do. Something is holding you back from truly connecting with others. Figure out what that is and fix it. Work (and life!) will be so much richer and more fulfilling if you do.

Join The Movement To Dump Annual Appraisals

Sometimes I think I’m all alone in the wilderness or part of the large and vocal chorus of complainers. These days I’m seeing many kindred spirits who are taking a bold stance when it comes to debunking the value of annual or semi-annual performance reviews. Some companies are even going so far as to eliminate them entirely. Hip hip hooray! Be the first on your block to join the movement.

Here is a great summary of what is happening and a strong point of view about what replaces this appraisal process from one of my colleagues in the UK.

Speaking as someone who was in charge of talent and performance as well as a consultant on the topic, here is what I have observed.

  • I haven’t heard anyone say “Gee, my review was so valuable.” Instead I hear a steady stream of complaints. From managers it is about the time suck and imperfect electronic system and drudgery of the entire process. From employees it is about how long it has been since their managers actually completed the form and the mandatory discussion and their disagreement with the numerical rating they received and their complaints about the one minor critical piece of feedback they received. In short, supervisors and employees agree that the value derived from these reviews is negligible.
  • In theory, these reviews are for development, assigning merit (sic. bonuses), creating the succession plans and differentiating between high and low performers. In reality, not so much. Listen, go back 20 years ago and there was no formal way to do any of these things. Most organizations were over and under valuing employees because they had no hard data. As the cottage industry grew around performance reviews (I can’t even imagine the billions!) companies were promised that this metrics-driven process would be the Holy Grail of an integrated “talent management” system. And who doesn’t want to focus on talent? Over time, I saw more bells and whistles added to the process. In the real world, low performers have years of glowing reviews and high performers with high ratings are not landing on the succession list. “She’s not ready yet. Let’s open an external search.” The gap between what is entered into the electronic system and how decisions about talent are made is wider than you think.
  • Countless hours are spent to create the 50 questions that can be used across all disciplines so the form can be a one size fits all. This is pure folly. Is it part of everyone’s job description to “think strategically” or “run the business as if it was your own” or “develop your people”? What about a highly technical individual contributor or someone without decision making authority or a writer? I remember all too well the complaints around the building when I was tasked to insist that everyone use the same form. Leaving an item blank wasn’t an option either because the system wouldn’t let you proceed to the next page until you had filled in every box. And don’t even get me started on 50 questions! I know of some companies that tried to solve this one-size problem by creating a dozen different forms: departments, disciplines, level, etc. Again, really???
  • Psychometricians extol the virtues of a 5-point rating scale. In the real world, managers default to 3’s and employees are incensed with anything less than a 5 and any review with 1’s and 2’s is wrong on so many levels. So where is the meaning and value in these numbers? I can answer that. They look great on the spreadsheets that HR and finance create to determine merit increases and bonuses and stock options. But if you ask if those numbers accurately reflect the performance and/or value of the employee (especially when compared to all folks with the same rating) the answer is no way. On the surface these ratings are expedient. In reality people are given (or not given) increases and promotions and bonuses on criteria that don’t appear anywhere on this appraisal. Those decisions are based on equally subjective anecdotes and “gut feelings.”

All of this is to say that we have come full circle. If organizations were too lax about a formal, standardized and fair way to assess staff performance 20 years ago, then all the fixes put into place have become over engineered, too generic and meaningless. Not to mention a total burden on everyone.

Some companies are now using a quarterly check-in conversation instead. This means that once a quarter managers have a free form discussion with their direct reports to cover a range of performance and developmental topics. From everything I see and hear, this method is far preferable to the outdated annual appraisal. It’s a good start.

But my concern about this new structure of talk-once-a-quarter is that managers will believe that is enough. To speak with your boss in any depth only once every three months is a problem. In an ideal world managers are offering ongoing feedback, touching base frequently (2-3 times a month), finding challenging assignments routinely and having casual chats by the coffee pot.

If all these systems and conversations are intended to develop the talent (or counsel people out) in the organization then constant interactions are the best way to achieve that. Yes, I know this means learning how to communicate effectively enough. Yes, I know this means having some tough conversations more often than desired. Yes, I know this means you can’t do this via text or email. Yes, I know this means having lots of human contact.

Oh well. “You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.”

For more information on GetReal help:

360 Feedback Tools: How to Get the Most Value

Feeling skeptical about initiating a 360 feedback process for yourself or other leaders? You are not alone. 360s can be powerful, yet too often they are just headaches or time-wasters. Ostensibly, a 360 process should gather feedback from bosses, peers, and direct reports to gain insight into a leader’s strengths and areas for improvement; the intent is growth, not performance assessment. Sadly, too often things go awry because the terms of engagement and expected course of action are ill-defined at the onset. Confusion and misuse diminish the potent impact 360 tools can have on leaders and organizations.

Consider these two examples.

After five years as executive director the board was uncertain about how effective Sylvia was in her role. Board members had questions about how well she managed her team and whether she was keeping the staff focused on the right activities. A few concerns from staff had bubbled up to the board, and it agreed some kind of reality check was needed. When the board chairman contacted Sylvia, he said, “It’s been five years and we haven’t conducted a formal feedback process, and we thought it would be a good idea. We continue to support your leadership but want to offer a development opportunity for you to grow. Would you be comfortable participating in a 360 feedback process?” Sylvia felt compelled to to say yes and then asked some follow up questions. “Is this a formal review? Who is going to see the results? How will this be communicated to the staff? Are you asking other leaders to go through this process? How will the results be used?” The chairman framed his responses in the most positive and supportive light, but Sylvia remained concerned.

Now consider Miguel, an executive director for three years. In his monthly meeting with the board chairwoman he remarked, “I feel like I’ve made some great progress since I arrived but I’m not sure I’m doing all I can. I am looking for a development opportunity where I can build on my strengths but also challenge myself to learn some new skills. I’ve been talking with some folks and doing some research. I found a 360 tool that I think fits my circumstances. Would you support this type of process?” The chairwoman asked a series of questions to learn more about Miguel’s aspirations and to explore additional resources he may need. In the end she was fully supportive of Miguel’s plans.

Sylvia’s situation is far more common than Miguel’s. She received mixed messages about her performance as well as the rationale for conducting a 360 process. “Development opportunity” in her case actually meant comprehensive performance review. The board was seeking feedback from multiple sources to make an assessment about Sylvia’s leadership based on the assumption that follow-up corrective actions would be necessary. Muddying the waters at the onset undercut the purpose and value of a robust 360 process.

Being Clear on the “Why” of Conducting a 360

If you decide to begin a 360 process—whether for yourself or for someone else—be very clear about what you want at the beginning. As a board do you want to invest in the growth and continued success of the leader? As a leader do you want to keep learning and expanding your effectiveness in the organization and achieving the mission? If so, then a 360 is a useful resource.

Conversely if, as a board or the boss of other leaders, you have performance concerns or have already determined that this leader may not ever be successful in this environment, don’t use a 360. Other HR performance management tools like annual reviews or upward feedback sessions are more appropriate. Making these sharp distinctions in your organizational practices helps the staff to see a 360 as a reward and benefit for high performance.

Getting the Most from the Process

Assuming that your intentions are clear, consider this framework to derive the greatest value from a 360 feedback process.

  • Ultimately, 360s help the recipients most, so they must see themselves as driving the process. Without an internal desire to learn and grow, this exercise can’t work. It will yield an interesting feedback report, but there will be no impetus to create sustainable individual change. There must be intrinsic motivation for personal growth. Even if the idea first comes from the board, the leader must be highly motivated to take in feedback and enter a learning process.
  • Gathering feedback from key constituents is only the first step. Using the data to plan and make personal change is the real star of the show. While the “event” of the 360 process is usually completed within four to six weeks, the longer term growth plan is the heart of the work. Without building a robust, deliberate, and actionable development map based on the feedback results, the impact will likely be minimal.
  • Committing resources for ongoing growth is the critical success factor. Follow-up coaching, mentoring, courses, and stretch assignments with good supervision are the most common leadership development tools with good reason: they work. Most of them cost money, take time, and require a serious investment from the leader and the board. This is where the true value of the 360 gets unleashed.
  • One size 360 does not fit all. There is a wide range of 360 tools available and finding the one that works for your organization matters. Some focus on an array of management competencies while others target leadership behaviors. Some are very long (50 questions or more), some are strengths based, others rely on verbatim comments, and others read more like a performance review. Clarify exactly what you want to learn more about. Do you—or does your boardsuspect that beefing up basic management skills is needed? Are you or your board most interested in you having a greater impact in your leadership role? Review a handful of tools and select the one that best fits your development needs as well as the organizational culture.

360s Provide a Powerful Experience—If Approached Correctly

When 360s first appeared on the scene a couple decades ago, everyone viewed them as “silver bullets,” meaning they could pack a punch, so use them judiciously. Only a select group of leaders were put through the process, high-priced consultants were brought in to deliver and interpret the reports, and the data could lead to significant consequences in leaders’ careers (both good and bad).

Today, 360s are used more broadly, they don’t cost as much, and the output doesn’t carry the same weight. What has prevailed over time is the notion that a 360 can be a very powerful experience, though a history of poor implementation dramatically dilutes many leaders’ expectations for high impact.

Follow these three best practices to increase the odds of a powerful experience and meaningful growth for nonprofit leaders.


This article originally appeared in LeadersMatter, The Bridgespan Group, in September 2014

For more information on GetReal help:

No More Drama

Are the interpersonal or political dynamics in your organization making you nuts? Is everyone jockeying to be seen as top dog? Is too much of your management time being spent as a referee? Are you sick and tired of all the disruptive craziness around you? Take a bit of advice from Mary J Blige: No more drama!

I’ve said it here many times and I’ll say it again: when you put smart, ambitious and well intentioned people altogether in a company you will inevitably see very wild and crazy human behaviors. It’s just a fact. But as a leader your job is to minimize the dysfunction and create a sane and productive work environment. Most leaders I work with run the gamut of being completely intolerant of stupid human tricks to being overly sympathetic. To provide some insight into this normal phenomenon let me use a (disguised) true story.

Lena was hired as the new CFO of a mid-sized public company. She was the most attractive candidate because, along with her financial expertise, she had transformed several finance functions in other companies. In her new role she inherited an antiquated, underperforming and bloated department that the CEO expected her to shape up. After two months Lena concluded that these were the critical issues: the team was not acting in service of the business, the processes and systems were idiosyncratic and not customer friendly, the talent on the team was C+ at best, the average tenure on the staff was 15 years and performance expectations were abysmally low. She had successfully lead other turnarounds so she felt ready to take on the challenge.

What she had not experienced before or anticipated was the destructive behavior of 80% of her department. Sure, she was used to a small percentage of folks who resisted the changes but she was witnessing a real Lord of the Flies. Individuals made fast tracks to Lena’s office to get their licks in about their peers. “He is completely incompetent but the last CFO was his best friend.” “She calls in sick at least once a week. No one trusts that she will deliver.” “He’s having an affair with someone in marketing.” “Take my word for it, the first person you need to replace is George. No one likes him.” As the new person, initially Lena felt she just needed to listen. Then it filtered back to her that each person believed that she had affirmed their rants about others. She came to realize that there was a systemic problem of long term bad behavior that had gone unchecked. Nothing was going to get accomplished until she took the bull by the horns.

I wish I could tell you that this experienced person knew exactly what to do and everyone lived happily ever after. But leadership in the real world isn’t that simple–especially when dealing with such extreme misbehavior. If you find yourself in a similar situation try any or all of these things. Eventually the team will get the message that you will not stand for this.

  • Make it clear in individual and group settings that bad mouthing colleagues is unacceptable and not your style. Cut people off. Redirect the focus to the speaker. Make the norms explicit. Do this consistently. In time people will stop misbehaving in front of you. They will still do it amongst themselves but at least the publicly stated and observable expectations are “no dissing allowed.”
  • Find out who the ringleader is and spend time privately with him/her. Have all those great coaching and feedback conversations about the specific behaviors and the impact on the team and yadda yadda. There is a high probability that there will be no behavior change but letting the person know that you have his number shifts the dynamic. Keep giving feedback every time he messes up, put him on a performance plan, document the misdeeds, speak with HR. The team, especially the most destructive person, needs to see you systematically and legally take this person down. It puts everyone on notice.
  • Over a reasonable period of time fire all the bad apples. The knee jerk reaction of a leader coming into this situation is “off with their heads ASAP!” That is the proper action but the process has to be transparent, methodical and fair. Chances are that once you remove the few biggest offenders that their groupies will either voluntarily leave in a huff or settle down. There is a contagion effect where the more controlling and powerful players recruit underlings to form this informal power structure. Take out the big guns first and then see what happens but do it by the book.
  • Find those people who have been the good players all along but have retreated to the corners to stay out of the fray. They are the core of your new organization. Engage them, give them lead assignments, elevate their status. This really disrupts the status quo and freaks out the baddies. Be sure that you protect your inner circle. As the productive and positive people start getting the rewards the negative people will lose steam.
  • Bring in very different new people. Each new hire is a way for you to telegraph “this is what I want”. Make sure that you assess well beyond technical skills by getting a good read on positive disposition, collaboration, reasonable ego needs and good relationship skills. They will need additional support from you as they transition into this nutty team. They will be pulled at or targeted. Protect them.

A rational instinct and ordinary good practice is to stage some team retreats to jump start your transition as the new leader and to relaunch the team. I’m a big fan of leadership transition processes but I urge you to save your time, money and credibility by not doing the old team retreat thing. If you observe that this team is an utter mess there are no group tools that can fix that. This gets resolved through strong leadership, individual discussions, stated behavior expectations and multiple departures. The peer pressure in a group setting with the boss and a facilitator will yield polite lip service that ends up being complete bullshit. Avoid this at all cost.

It took Lena two and a half years to sort out her team. She brought in new people, took out the trouble makers, focused the department on customer service, engaged the team in the business and cleaned up the finance tools and processes. It took much longer than she had wanted and there were loads of missteps. Ultimately there was no more drama and everyone lived happily ever after…more or less.

For more information on GetReal help:

The Unspoken Aspect of Offering Feedback

Someone asks you to provide feedback about a colleague for a performance review or a 360 or succession planning discussions. Your knee jerk reaction is probably to say Yes. Or you feel prompted to offer feedback based on an encounter you had with someone. Not so fast grasshopper. Take a deep breath and step away from your megaphone. First answer a few questions.

  • Do you value and respect this person?
  • Do you wish only good for this colleague?
  • Are you invested in this person’s growth and success at the company?
  • Do you believe this person is doing significant harm to the business?

If you answered Yes to all of the above then plan out what you want to say and provide specific examples of great behaviors and areas for improvement.

But if you answered No to one or more of these questions it’s time to have a heart to heart with yourself. It’s likely that the “feedback” you want to offer says more about you than the other person.

I’ve had this conversation repeatedly over the past several weeks. It’s mid year review and succession planning time. If you want to be perceived as a team player, a talent magnet, a developer of people, an effective manager or a mentor then you need to make conscious decisions about when or if to offer feedback before you jump in with both feet. When we speak of feedback we usually focus on the Timely, Specific yadda-yadda stuff. I am urging you to back up to square one and examine your own motivations. We need to talk about the unspoken aspect of feedback.

Even if we assume that most of us are decent human beings who want nothing but good things for the people around us, working in an organization brings out predictable behaviors. We mere mortals (along with our animal kingdom ancestors) will naturally create pecking orders and in-groups and out-groups and informal leaders and influencers and survival of the fittest elbow jabbing. On the surface we act like well intentioned professionals but somewhere in the recesses of our psyches lurk some darker tendencies. Most of us have well trained super egos to keep all that in check but being invited to speak our minds about that jerk (oops! Did I say that out loud? Down, id, down!) we have to work with is mighty tempting.

So here’s the conversation you need to have with yourself.

Me: Should I tell M’s boss about that time he totally threw me under the bus in the ops meeting?

Self: Oh man! That kept me pissed off for days! That’s why I didn’t cc him on that email. Idiot deserved it.

Me: But was that moment part of a larger pattern? Does M always treat me that way? Have I seen him do it to others? Is he hurting the team?

Self: Come on, you know he’s an asshole and does this all the time! But mostly to people he thinks he can dominate. I think you should tell his boss or write about this on that 360 survey. But if you write it be sure to disguise yourself a bit. You know how easy it is to figure out who wrote what.

Me: But if I take that passive aggressive route then I think that’s me just venting because he pissed me off. I want him to hurt like I did. And I want his boss to see it and punish him.

Self: And your question is….?

Me: I’ve been on the receiving end of that and it ain’t pretty. If I said M can sometimes expose people in disrespectful ways in public that would be accurate but what happens next?

Self: He gets a demerit. You win.

Me: But I don’t think that’s the game I ought to play. Do I think he does a good job overall and adds value to the team and has the company’s best interests in mind? I’d give him a B on all that. Would I say he has the finest interpersonal habits? I’d give him a C. So maybe I need to find a way to raise those issues in ways that would be helpful to him and the team.

Self: You are such a kill joy! Wouldn’t you just love to stick it to him and watch him get his comeuppance?

Me: I don’t see who wins if I just toss flames. Me? I think there’s more liability than upside if I do that. M? If it isn’t presented in a helpful vein he will just get more obnoxious. The team? How does a more pissy M make things better?

Self: So you’re not going to say anything?

Me: I’m not sure yet. I do think his style messes up the team’s productivity and I have seen others withdraw because of it. But if I can’t find a constructive way to both offer the feedback and identify what would work better then I think I should keep my mouth shut.

Self: Geez! You used to be so much more fun!

Too often we let the emotions of the moment run away with us and we couch it in “I’m being a good citizen to offer this feedback” as we walk into someone’s boss’ office. If we don’t have that little check and balance inner dialogue we could actually harm ourselves…not our intended target. If you develop a reputation as someone who routinely points out the misbehavior of others (ie. tattling) things will not turn out well for you.

Make sure your motives for offering feedback are:

  • For the good of the person, team or company
  • To generate growth or development or success for a person
  • Focused on work and productivity rather than personality flaws

(If someone is behaving unethically or could do great harm to the brand and the business you have an obligation to speak up. That’s a different ball game. Here I am talking about the more common circumstances we all encounter every day at work.)

We all misbehave from time to time. That’s normal. So make very conscious decisions about whether or not to provide your two cents. Next time around the shoe could be on the other foot and we all know what a bitch karma can be.

Are You Working Too Many Hours?

Of course you are. Silly question. But now that I have your attention I want to ask a few more questions.

  • Do you feel you can never say “no” to requests…especially from your boss?
  • Do you  believe that long hours that bleed into the rest of your life are a requirement of your position?
  • Do you believe there is a one to one correlation between crazy hours and good performance reviews, bonuses and promotions?

If you answered “yes” to all these questions then you have put yourself in a position where you believe you don’t have control over your time. Your actions signal that you firmly believe that to be successful in your company you have to sacrifice a great deal. I don’t know about you, but not having control over my life feels awful. And if you feel awful then I’m guessing that both your work and personal life are suffering.

I can hear you now…because all my clients say this: But Nicki, I simply have to work this hard to get ahead/be recognized/do a good job. And then when I suggest that this is nuts and they need to be worried more about their well being I get loads of pushback. Lots of “I know my health sucks and I haven’t seen my family but this is just the nature of the beast.”

To which I say…bullshit!

I have facts on my side:

  • Human beings cannot be productive 24/7. We put in a good 6-8 hours of work and the rest of the time is either wasted or unproductive. Do your own math if you don’t believe me. In the 10-14 hours you are in the office/at your desk at home subtract the time you: chat casually with others, sit in meetings that are not relevant to your goals, surf the net for non-work related stuff, daydream in useless ways (some daydreaming is great), run errands/go to the gym during office hours, stare at your screen or redo your work. I’ll bet the real number of hours that you do your best work is close to 8.
  • We need 8 hours of good sleep each night to be productive. If you don’t get home until 7pm, have family time, then work at home for another 2-5 hours, sleep for 4-5 hours and leave the house at 7am you are not getting enough restorative time…which leads to ineffectiveness.
  • When we are in poor health even the simple things become more difficult. Thinking clearly, walking up a flight of stairs, breathing…basics.

That’s the physical reality. Here is the corporate reality.

  • Yes, many organizations and bosses are excessively demanding. But if you are doing good work within more reasonable time constraints no one cares how many hours it takes. All they care about is great outcomes.
  • When the vast majority of bosses are challenged about deadlines or volumes of work that are crazy they are generally open to rational discussions. They are rarely aware of the various demands on your time so it is up to you to spell it out and make recommendations for something that is more reasonable.
  • If the scope of your responsibility or performance objectives are inhuman there is a step that got missed along the way. Either you and your boss didn’t plan well or you didn’t speak up early enough or the company culture is out of control. Again, even in very high pressure settings, it is the rare boss that intentionally sets you up to live and die at the office or to fail.
  • People at the lower ranks are able to work 8-9 hour days. People at the very top put in about 10-12 hour days (not counting emergencies or late night board meetings). Middle managers, directors and VPs work at the office and at home between 12-16 hours. What’s wrong with this picture?
  • There is trash talk about parents/people who leave earlier than others and sometimes those people are passed over for juicier assignments or promotions. But the ones who really deliver are admired and do get good opportunities…sometimes over those that put in longer hours.

And here’s the personal and emotional reality for people who are working crazy long hours.

  • Ambition may trump all else. Whether you are in a start up trying to make it successful or climbing the corporate ladder work matters more than any other aspect of life. If that is the case (and it is not a bad thing) then understand that there will be holes in your life. No social or family life. Less sleep or health. And there are significant consequences to putting ambition before anything/anyone else.
  • Your identity may be inextricably bound to your work. You have poured so much into your professional life that if it was taken away tomorrow you might not know who you are/feel complete enough.
  • Co-workers will become your social network. That is fine up to a point. It gets tricky when you become your friend’s manager or when your emotional isolation from people outside of work causes you to turn to co-workers for greater intimacy or when your membership in a clique overrides your business judgment. Work relationships can become too important or too emotional. What happens to business, objective, unemotional decision making?
  • Lots of people under one roof for tons of hours a day creates a very closed system. This means that little new thinking, new people or outside influences can penetrate. The company and the people are serving needs that go well beyond doing a job. We are pack animals…we will do whatever it takes to protect our clan…even it is bad for the business.

You can already surmise my suggestions for a better way.

  • It is an illusion that you do not have direct control over your time. Stop being a victim (which has a whole set of problems!) and present your boss with a well thought out solution for how much time it will take to get your job done. As I say, if you are a valued employee, things will work out.
  • That said, it is easy to fall back into over working. So when your boss signs up for a reasonable schedule it is up to you to stick to it.
  • Carve out weekly time that is sacrosanct. Leaving by 5 on Tuesdays or limited computer time on the weekends or hours that your phone is off. Decide what is important to you (family, sleep, exercise) and commit to making it a priority. Work will still be there tomorrow. You want to be sure that your family or your health will be too.
  • Routinely fill your boss in on what you are doing and what needs adjusting. Bosses don’t keep track of that so it is your responsibility to share that so you can both create reasonable expectations.
  • Stop feeling helpless and out of control. This is the victim stuff. If you are allowing yourself to be in that position the issue is you, not the company.

I will grant you that some organizations and some bosses are completely insane. The question for you is are you willing to put up with that. If you look ahead 3 years will you feel that killing yourself paid off? Or will you feel like you sold your soul to the devil? You really, really do have a choice.

For more information on GetReal help:

%d bloggers like this: