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

The Harvard Business Review Tip For The Overworked

Build Your Community: Part 12

The The Harvard Business Review tip of the day: People who are overloaded by work should “create rituals—highly specific behaviors, done at precise times, that become automatic and no longer require conscious will or discipline. For example, go[ing] to bed at the same time every night [ensures that] you consistently get enough sleep.”

As a baseball fan, I’m all over rituals. This year during the SF Giants World Series run, I listened to the first two playoff games (losses) on the radio, and then I watched next three (wins) on tv.  It was a bummer, because I was afraid to turn the radio on for the rest of the playoffs, lest The Giants start losing again.  Unfortunate, because Jon Miller and the other local radio announcers are so much better than the various clowns broadcasting on tv.  But what could I do?  I didn’t want The Giants to lose on my account.

My silly-but-true example illustrates something important about human behavior: much of what we do is driven by emotion, not reason.  And while my turning on the tv was not a ritual per say, rituals serve the same function: emotional comfort from the sameness of an activity.

Rituals are one of the ways that corporate culture is perpetuated. A primary example is the quarterly company meeting, when all employees gather to hear senior management go through a scorecard of performance, talk about what is coming up, and try to inspire employees for the future.  Employees at dysfunctional companies sometimes refer to these as “cool aid sessions” while companies like Google and now Yahoo use weekly all hands meetings as a way to build a culture of transparency and trust among employees.  (For more check out this interview with Laszlo Bock, Google’s SVP of People Operations on Thinkwithgoogle.com).

This tip from HBR is spot on, although I disagree with the overt suggestion to use rituals as a means to maintain a work-first mentality.

“Sebastian Tate,” who we met in Chapter 7 in this post, uses the ritual of the male-bonding camping trip to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

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Why Time Management Is Not the Answer To Chronic Overwork

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 2

The first thing I tried to reduce my hours was a time management course taught by the American Management Association.  I was frantically busy and thought that by managing my time better, my issue would be solved.  It was a great class, and I learned two things.  I flew to New York City for the class, and was the only person with a high tech job.  But everyone in the class had the same personal story: my hobby used to be such and such, but I don’t have time for it anymore because of my job.  This was people in construction, high school yearbook sales and in the media.  My first lesson: it’s not just high tech or Silicon Valley with an overwork issue.  It’s everywhere.

The second thing I learned was to be more efficient.  Less procrastination, better goal setting, and better prioritization.  This class was good.  My life became better for a few months, but pretty soon I was just as busy.  It was a better planned busyness, but my life was once again out of control – all work and no play made Greg an out of shape and crabby boy.

Now, I understand why.  The overwork was a symptom, but was not the root cause.  The root cause was my corporate idolatry.  I had adopted and internalized a company-first value system.  The company was (unconsciously) the most important thing in my life.  So all of the time that I saved from greater efficiency was put back into the company.  Things started to change for me when I reconnected with people.  It came down to my values and priorities.

If you look at how you spend your time and make decisions, what are your priorities?  What is most important to you?

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Thirty, Single, and Killing Herself For the Company

Busting Your Corporate Idol.  Chapter 5, Part 10

Mary is tall, with curly dark hair and a serious expression when you first meet her.  After a while her bubbly side emerges, a pleasant balance to her focus and determination.  She spoke to me with great sincerity and emotion, and she tells her story better than I ever could:

[At] my first job out of grad school, I was excited and wanted to do well.  The culture was a small company feel, everybody knows each other, familyish.  Everyone was trying to do the right thing to make the company successful. You wanted to go the extra mile, [because] you were working with your friends. You felt this camaraderie. I was traveling for the first time, yeah! I’ll go anywhere yeah! Just all the perks of being in a company vs. academia: the money, the bonuses, the 401k it was so exciting.  I felt so successful compared with my Ph.D. Writing email at night, fixing customer problems, writing customer requirements, it[work] fulfilled me to a certain amount. Even now, ten years later I still feel a connection to many of the people I worked with. 

So when the layoffs hit, it was such a slap in the face. It was really hard. I have very vivid images of the layoffs. I wasn’t part of it, but it was a mess.  I remember the CSO was crying. Everyone had to get in a room. I remember being up high, looking down and seeing everyone scrambling around in the corridor to see if they were on the list.  It was awful.” 

The layoffs were a wake up call for Mary.  

I was 30 and still single. I though ‘I’m killing myself for the company, and not getting anywhere in my personal life.’  You don’t realize that at first, except for Friday nights when you grab movie, Thai noodles and sit by yourself.  It started to be ‘wait a minute, I want to get married, have kids, and I’m getting older.  I have an awesome apartment downtown and no one to share it with’. I traveled a lot and gained weight, which made it hard to be single.  Even if I looked fine, I didn’t feel good about myself. 

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What If Successfully Managing Workplace Politics Doesn’t Bring Balance?

Chapter 4: Who To Trust At Work Part 18 (Conclusion)

This chapter I’ve shared stories that illustrate how the people at work can contribution to corporate idolatry.  But as the following story illustrates, even the best of people, working for the most admirable of Wolves, are subject to strong influence from both circumstances and the workplace culture.

One senior product manager we’ll call “Jill” had a Fox manager who pushed and pushed in private to get the product out, and then publically pointed the finger at her when disaster struck.  According to Jill, after leading the team for a year “it felt crappy to sit in the room, and watch everyone look to my boss to find a solution.  They acted like I wasn’t there.  But later in the meeting there came this moment when my manager gave me a look that seemed to say ‘what do I do next?’  I looked him in the eye, and although I knew exactly what needed to be done, I said nothing.” And the outcome?  The Fox manager was soon moved to a backwater of the company, while Jill delivered a solution and recovered her reputation.

After that time, Jill was able to manage the politics much more effectively, and while the environment wasn’t exactly supportive, it wasn’t hostile either.  But the story does not end there, because Jill was still in a very poor situation.

Jill’s competition released a product that the customers liked better, and her marketing programs and sales pep talks were not going to change that.  Circumstances were beyond Jill’s control, but she pushed herself to the edge of ruin in a futile effort to regain market leadership.

Jill believed that her heroic efforts could result in a major change in the marketplace.  Psychologists call this the “Illusion of Control.”  I call it another face of idolatry.

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