Something That Blew My Mind


Today I want to talk about something that will blow your mind. It did mine.

I was recently speaking with an acquaintance who has been working in the same organization for quite some time. He has a great track record there, and his department is rocking it.

Their work is a big and quite public project that could revolutionize the way many similar organizations function. There are about 300 people across several teams working on this project, and they have been at it for a few years now. It’s been exciting and fast-paced, with everyone’s noses to the grindstone, racing against the deadline.

He and I were chatting about how many people have come and gone on the project, and how much time he had to put in early on. He shared how organized he had to be and how hard he had to drive his team. He talked about the care and attention he put in on the front end to build the team, and now the team is running as smoothly as a well-oiled machine. He is pretty proud of that – and rightly so.

His team produces the least drama and headaches for management. There is little turnover. His people know what they need to get done, and they get it done – efficiently and without fanfare. They are both confident and competent.

But he mentioned that one thing is quite troubling: He sometimes receives sideways comments and barbs from other supervisors who are newer to the project, about how his and his team members’ vehicles are often the first gone from the parking lot each night. And once, when raises were being given, his new supervisor said something to the effect of, “You need to explain to me why you deserve an increase when you are the first one gone at night.”

Now, just to clarify, we are talking about gone at night as in: departing by 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. instead of 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. – or even pulling an all-nighter. Also, the norm at this organization, which my friend participates in as well, is that sending texts and emails until midnight is A-Okay and anticipated.

But as he indicated to me, he was one of the first people on board for this project a half dozen years ago, and has already done the heavy lifting of all-nighters to hit deadlines. He has also done the work of developing the skills and setting expectations with his people so those rocky, early days are behind them. Now they are executing, and executing well.

As we were chatting, he said, almost as if he were thinking aloud, “What if the person who was able to get everything done and be out the door at a reasonable hour was the person whose behavior was most handsomely rewarded and valued?”

This gave me pause.

I pondered what the environment must look like if leaving under a cover of darkness and people comparing whose car was there and whose parking spot was vacant had become the norm. How many supervisors (and staff) across the United States are equating more hours in the work seat with more value?

What if we measured value by who can get the best quality of work done most efficiently?

What if we valued the teams who perform at a high level, who are able to churn out vast amounts of great work in the least amount of time?

How might that change the work environment and family life for thousands of workers? And what about all the happiness, health, and wellness that would boost employee retention and thereby reduce the cost of recruiting and training new team members?

When I asked him why his peers had no appreciation for the three or four years he and his staff worked all those crazy hours to get effective systems and processes in place, he said, “I’m the only one who has been here that long. Everyone else has two or less years on the project. Turnover is incredibly high. They only know me as the one who leaves before everyone else.”

I got curiouser and curiouser, so I asked, “Why are the leaders of such an important and high-profile project coming and going so rapidly?”

He said, “Stress caused by a culture where you are expected to work 12 to 18 hour days. People opt-out quickly. If they stayed, they, too, could see the light at the end of the tunnel. But all they see is what it looks like before they get everything in place, and they get burnt out.”

This makes me wonder if we are rewarding the wrong behaviors. If retention is about work/life balance, teamwork, being able to communicate when you are feeling vulnerable, and accessing support and mentoring to know that Yes, this too shall pass, then why do we continue to foster environments where people are keeping tabs on who’s the first one out the door?

Do you ever get caught up in this rat race behavior? I know I have, both as an employee and as a supervisor:

  • Sending emails in the middle of the night, hoping others will notice what time you were working and think, “Wow, is she a hard worker!”
  • Waiting at your desk until you see other people leaving so you won’t be the first one out the door.
  • Feeling the urge to talk about how “stressed” you are so others will know you are working hard.
  • Resenting employees who actually choose to use all their vacation time.
  • Noticing that you favor the staffer who doesn’t have a great work/life balance because you can depend on them (until they burn out).

There is so much research on the correlation between brain fatigue and lower rates of efficiency and higher rates of error. What if we had a world where the person who can get every project done on schedule, effectively, and with a high level of quality – and still get out the door at a reasonable time – is the one who gets the accolades, the attention, and a big raise?

What if the leader who can develop a team that combines their strengths and is accountable to the goals while providing an excellent result, is not only acknowledged, but is also a role model for struggling leaders?

I know my friend’s situation is not an anomaly, and that it exists to some degree in every organization, even if not quite as dire as what he shared with me.

As I continued to think about what was being communicated to me, that the people who take the most time to get the job done are being rewarded the most, I actually had to pause. It kind of blew my mind how upside down that logic is.

What a paradigm shift it would be to value effectiveness, accuracy, and the benefits of work/life balance over more hours in the chair!

What are your thoughts?

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