Who says more is better at work
Oct 28 2013
We’ve all been duped into thinking that more is better when it comes to our jobs. But the secret to success is to work faster, not longer
Sharon Meers &
We started our careers in two time-intensive fields —Joanna in law and Sharon in finance. We each looked around our offices and saw men working 24/7, and women doing the same thing — until they became parents. In our mostly male professions, long hours were not only a badge of honour and a sign of status, they were a necessity for anyone who wanted to get ahead. It was clear who the working mothers were (a handful of women who tried to keep more normal hours), but it was hard to tell who the fathers were. Single or with four kids at home, all men arrived at work early and went home late — or so it seemed. Talking to men and women in all kinds of jobs, we heard the same story. As young people starting out they, like us, got this message: To succeed, you need to work all the time. To work all the time, you need to be (or act) childless.
We’ve been lucky to learn this is not true — but only after many years of labouring under the delusion that it was. We’ve all been duped into thinking that more is better when it comes to our jobs, that somehow the more time we spend at work, from offices to hospitals to test kitchens to newsrooms, the more productive we’ll be. It starts from a belief that’s largely right: That hard work is good (which it is), that we can do a better job if we put in more hours (which was true when we were talking about bringing the harvest in before the crops froze). “It didn’t use to be this intense,” says Bill George, who ran Medtronic and now sits on the boards of global companies like ExxonMobil. “It got much worse starting 15 years ago.”
Compounding the problem, some of the most hardheaded leaders romanticise 24/7 life. “I used to show up at the office Saturday morning,” writes former General Electric, CEO, Jack Welch in his bestselling book Winning. He had plenty of company, all men, on these weekend mornings he describes as “a blast.” “We would mop up the workweek in a more relaxed way and shoot the breeze about sports. I never once asked anyone ‘Is there someplace you’d rather be — or need to be — for your family or favourite hobby or whatever?’ The idea just didn’t dawn on me that anyone would want to be anywhere but at work.”
We’ve created a breed of managers who think 24/7 is a matter of pride and the only path to success. The overfocus on hours can lead even bright bosses to stop measuring things that matter more, like results or the inputs that drive them, which take more effort to track. Consider the management maxim that “what gets measured gets done” and it’s no wonder we’re all at the office ever longer.
Studying a large firm, Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow heard one boss excuse a failing worker this way: “I think we would have lost faith in him a long time ago. But he works so hard, you just have to assume he’s working on something really challenging.” Bosses at this firm (as in many) were so focused on hours that they would cut a poor performer slack but pushed out successful workers who put in less time.
Something happens to our sense of time when we become parents. Time becomes a prized commodity, something we’d rather not waste. When our time is being misused —by either ourselves or others — we want to punch the clock, literally.
It gets harder to see 24/7 as heroic when you know how much it hurts the well-being of kids (and of your marriage and spouse). You can’t get good results unless you put in good, hard work, but as Doug, a professor of psychiatry, says, “Sometimes I think we overdo it. When people feel they’re expected to be at the office for 12 hours a day, they spend a lot more time bullshitting at the watercooler.”
While it’s easy to think that the workplace is kinder than it was a generation ago, we are in fact being asked to work longer, harder, and faster, all in the name of the global competition. If we’re really interested in winning, our addiction to midnight oil is a danger. Productivity, efficiency, innovation should be our focus — all more easily achieved by alert minds not working 24/7. zz
(Meers leads strategy for Magento, eBay's global commerce platform.Strober is founder
and CEO of an online company
that helps fight and prevent