Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

How Corporate Idolatry Negates a Rich Life

I can’t tell you how many people told me to drop corporate idolatry from my book title.

“People don’t want to hear about religion at work.” Or “Idolatry is a mortal sin, and I’m offended that you associate my hard work with idolatry.”

The most common objection is this: “Idola-what? I can’t pronounce it.” As a ten-year marketer, you’d think that I’d jump to modify the message in response to this feedback. Except isn’t that what Coke did when they developed New Coke in the 80s?

Coke’s rival Pepsi had a famous advertising campaign, the Pepsi challenge. It was a blind taste test, and people overwhelmingly picked Pepsi over Coke. The Coke executives panicked, and developed New Coke, a sweet soda like Pepsi. It was a disaster. Everyone hated new coke. It turns out that in a one swallow test, Pepsi wins. But if you ask people to drink an entire glass, Coke wins.  Oops. You need to be careful on how you interpret the data, and not to put too much weight on only one data point.

In the case of corporate idolatry, when I explain to people that corporate idolatry is a metaphor for overwork, heads start to nod. When I explain in detail, as I will below, people either smile or scowl. It is not unusual for arguments to break out, or for a discussion to go on for thirty minutes. Along the way, we’ve covered issues like missing family events for work, or the fear of a backlash if you say “no” to the bosses’ last minute request. An idea that sparks a deep discussion about priorities and values, by people who normally don’t think about these issues, is something to hold on to.

An idea that sparks a deep discussion about priorities and values, by people who normally don’t think about these issues, is something to hold on to.

Have you ever heard a phrase like “you need to do what is best for the company?” Let me guess, it wasn’t in the context of giving a promotion, planning an office party, or giving everyone a week of extra vacation. We use the phrase “best for the company” to justify an action that is unpopular, like canceling a project, or a decision that is perhaps unethical, like shipping a product that you know will not meet customers needs.

Doing what is “best for the company” is not the same as doing “what is best.” Every time we say yes to a company request that results in long hours is a no to someone else in our life. I know for what I speak, for there was a time when I was working 90 hours a week, and I thought that I was a family first person. It was a sobering moment when I realized that you cannot be family first AND work 90 hours a week. For example, when my cell phone rang during dinner, I told my family I had an important call and left the table.

Doing what is “best for the company” is not the same as doing “what is best.”

Which brings me to the real reason why people don’t like the phrase corporate idolatry—it hits too close to home. It is far easier to complain about how hard we are working. It allows us to play the victim:

  • I didn’t have any choice.
  • The job market is really competitive, and I don’t know if I would even get an interview if I were to apply today.
  • I am having a big impact, and there is no one else who can do what I do.

This last point illustrates the most insidious thing about corporate idolatry is that it warps the way we see the world. We agree with the company’s definition of what is important, and we buy into illusions that are no more real than the belief that sacrificing a goat to a statue could make it rain.

The real reason why people don’t like the phrase corporate idolatry—it hits too close to home.

To accept corporate idolatry means that we are no longer the victim, but an agent making choices. I am choosing to answer the email that comes in at 10 PM. I am choosing to take the phone call during dinner. I am choosing to eat lunch at my desk instead of leaving the office and meeting a friend for lunch. I am choosing to be at the regional sales meeting in Europe instead of at home for my kid’s birthday.

Yes, recognizing corporate idolatry can be painful initially. But it also provides the path to a more balanced life. It opens the space to start putting people first. We choose not to answer the phone, or to accept the lunch invitation from a friend, even when a large deliverable is due the next day.

Just don’t tell your boss that the company is no longer the most important thing in your life. Instead, use your political skills to defer, delegate, or de-scope deliverable requests. No point getting burned at the stake just to make a point.

This post originally appeared on the blog Switch & Shift

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