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Talent Management Issue - Ideal Worker Does Not Want 80 Hour Work Week

A recent HBR article by Erin Reid discussed how living up to the image of the “ideal worker” (someone fully devoted to their job – putting in long hours – arriving early – staying late) is creating a majority of dissatisfied employees who either begrudgingly put in the long hours, fake it or opt out and damage their careers in the process.

This is been a talent management and employee retention  challenge for decades. The “Superwoman/Superman” corporate warrior ideal is starting to show wear and tear as the Millennial and Gen X generations start to take leadership roles. This change will be gradual not seismic but it will begin to reshape what work, promotability and careers mean in the years to come.

First some background.

Erin Reid in her article Why Some Men Pretend to Work 80 Hour Weeks revealed that:

In many professional jobs, expectations that one be an “ideal worker”—fully devoted to and available for the job, with no personal responsibilities or interests that interfere with this commitment to work—are widespread. We often think of problems with these expectations as women’s problems. But men too may struggle with them: my research at a top strategy consulting firm, first published in Organization Science, revealed that many men experienced these expectations as difficult to fulfill or even distasteful.

To be sure, some men seemed to happily comply with the firm’s expectations, working long hours and traveling constantly, but a majority was dissatisfied. They complained to me of children crying when they missed their soccer games, of poor health and substance addictions caused by how they worked, and of a general sense of feeling “overworked and underfamilied.”

Many of these men acted on their feelings, finding different ways to resist the firm’s expectations that they be ideal workers. How they resisted shaped their futures at the firm in important ways: some men made small, under-the-radar changes to their work that allowed them to pull back, while still “passing” as the work-devoted superheroes the firm valued. Others were more transparent about their difficulties, and asked the firm for help in pulling back. Their efforts resulted in harsh penalties and marginalization. 

The dilemma that Reid points out is something that everyone in corporate life can relate to. The ideal is often measured by the number of hours that someone works. This leads to non-productive behaviors such as:

  • Face time – staying late only to give the appearance of being dedicated
  • Sending e-mails late in the evening, on weekends, or early in the morning.
  • Faking that you are busy when you are really attending to personal matters.

The demands for being always on have become even more prevalent with modern technology. As Reid points out from a discussion with a junior consultant at a global firm:

Our email program has a time client built into it. So you can actually see in your email box who’s online and who’s not. And there’s an implicit culture [here] that if you don’t see somebody on at the same time at a certain hour of the night, you’re wondering what the heck they are doing

This tug of war is going to represent one of the biggest talent development challenges that Human Resource leaders are going to face in the coming years. How do they develop and retain top talent that all do not want to devote their lives to their career at their organization?

The changes that are necessary to make this happen are going to require a significant shift in management attitude and behavior. This will be slow and at times difficult since this type of change is the hardest for humans to do.

Reid points out that the changes are already happening. My belief is that the pace of this change is going to accelerate:

My research revealed that men were just as likely as women to have trouble with these “always on” expectations. However, men often coped with these demands in ways that differed strikingly. Women who had trouble with the work hours tended to simply to take formal accommodations, reducing their work hours, but also revealing their inability to be true ideal workers, and they were consequently marginalized within the firm. 

In contrast, many men found unobtrusive, under-the-radar ways to alter the structure of their work (such as cultivating mostly local clients, or building alliances with other colleagues), such that they could work predictable schedules in the 50 to 60 hour range. In doing so, they were able to work far less than those who fully devoted themselves to work, and had greater control over when and where those hours were worked, yet were able to “pass” as ideal workers, evading penalties for their noncompliance.

Finding the right balance at work where the high expectations for quality work are balanced by the realization that your workforce wants more balance will be the key talent development challenge for the years to come. What we have now is an ongoing myth that Reid points out:

More importantly, however, passing is not a good strategy for the organization as a whole: not only does it involve an element of deception between colleagues, bosses, and subordinates; it also perpetuates the myth that those who are successful are also all wholly devoted to work.
Yet, a critical implication of this research is that working long hours is not necessary for high quality work. The experiences of those men who passed show clearly that, even in a client service setting, it is possible to reorganize work such that it is more predictable and consumes fewer hours.

Smart and competitive organizations are going to recognize that this myth no longer works and that they will need to create a new model where promotability and value is measured something more than the number of hours worked.