Look: Up In the Sky! Is it a Hero? Or a Hot Mess?

In many workplaces, workaholics rule the roost.

Just yesterday, the most emailed article from the NY Times was “How Some Men Fake an 80-Hour Workweek, and Why It Matters”.

The article cites research that shows that some employees (particularly men) have learned how to “pass” as workaholics to receive higher ratings on performance reviews.

The research explains that employees working 50 hours a week serve clients as well as those who work 80 hours.The facts may tell one story, but the prevailing corporate mindset spins another:   the 80-hour martyr worker is our greatest hero.

Last Thursday, I was working with one of the “elite” professional service firms.  A partner bluntly stated:

We stand up and cheer for the person who puts out the fire, who saves the deal at the 11th hour.   The person who manages to avoid the fire, who consistently closes the deal with no drama?  That’s expected.

In the broader culture, stories of heroes overcoming adversity and courage inspire us.  And rightly so.  We want role models who live out our loftiest ambitions: Malala, Mandela, Musk.Yet, in our corporate cultures, when we recognize and reward our “heroes”, we may be celebrating the wrong people for the wrong reasons.   In doing so, we may be fostering complacency, disengagement, and turnover.

Here are three thorny issues with conventional “corporate hero” worship:

Rewards and recognition get out of whack. If (as the partner said) “We stand up and cheer for the firefighter” and don’t recognize the work of the persistent performers, what message does that send to those people who don’t do drama, but take care of business?  Do you think they aren’t keeping an internal scorecard of what and who gets rewarded?

You create band-aid solutions, rather than curing deeper symptoms. A hero can come in at the last minute and save the project, but that doesn’t get to the root cause as to why the project needed saving in the first place.  This hero syndrome stalls investment in creating deeper and broader systemic solutions.  After all, why change if you always “get by”?  This mindset stifles innovation and improvements.

If the “Hot Mess Workaholic” stands in as your “Ideal Performer” role model, work/life boundaries disappear.

The workaholic is addicted to the adrenaline rush of constant busy-ness and achievement.   Yet, the science of high performance shows that there are diminishing returns working for extended periods of time without adequate renewal.

Culture is created by norms of behavior. If putting in 80 hours a week and responding to emails 24/7 is rewarded,  the expectation is that everyone else (those 50 hour a week “slackers”) should do the same.

This expectation transforms into the unspoken company message:  “Work harder. Work longer.  Work early.  Work late. Work often.” These norms create these outcomes:

  • Increased stress

  • Higher levels of illness

  • Increased turnover

  • Greater challenges in recruitment/retention

  • Lower morale and engagement

What model of hero does your company reward?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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