Back when I was in my second year of consulting, I worked with literally the busiest person in the world.
At least, that’s what she wanted everyone to think…
She would rush around the office with a permanent frown on her face, clutching her laptop and a stack of papers. I don’t know where she was headed, but it always looked important.
A few times I tried to stop her and ask, “how’s it going?” but all I’d get was a quick response of “crazy busy…” before she’d charge off to a another critical meeting.
Sometimes, at the end of the day I’d do a lap of the office before heading home. Without fail, she’d still be there at her desk, furiously working away and staring intently into the glowing screen of her computer.
At the time I thought, “I wonder what kind of super interesting project work she’s staffed on right now?”
I even caught myself feeling a little self-conscious that I wasn’t as busy as she was.
And so I did what any competitive person would do — I pretended to be busy.
I started exaggerating how much I was working. An 8-hour day always become 10. A 60-hour week always became 80. I mean, who wants to admit that they didn’t even think about work on the weekend when everyone else is in the office getting killed?
But beyond just exaggeration, I started working longer hours as well.
Even if I finished all my work by 7:00 p.m., I wouldn’t think about leaving. I would stick around for a few more hours, surfing the Web and re-reading emails so that I didn’t come off as a slacker.
This probably sounds ridiculous to anyone who hasn’t worked in that type of environment. But if you have, then you’ll know it’s just part of playing the game.
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I was looking for some answers for this phenomenon over the weekend, and came across an interesting HBR article: “Why Some Men Pretend to Work 80-Hour Weeks“.
The article is based on a research study at a top strategy consulting firm, and gives an answer for why people lie about their hours at work.
Like many finance jobs, consulting comes along with the basic expectation that you will sacrifice your work-life balance for your job.
“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.”
And linked to these expectations is the ingrained belief that becoming an “ideal worker” and devoting yourself to your job is the key to success.
“At this firm, people believed that success indeed required ideal-worker-like devotion. Many reported 60- to 80-hour weeks, with little control over when those hours were worked and whether they might have to travel. Work was expected to come ahead of other life responsibilities.”
Employees that didn’t fit with these unwritten expectations were ostracized, overlooked for promotions, and sometimes even fired.
These two pressures — the expectations to work long hours and the myth that it leads to success — caused employees to lie about the hours they worked. One example from the article hit especially close to home, because I used to do the exact same thing:
“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.”
I’ve done the exact same thing before. Some analysts at my firm took it a step further, and used to literally leave their laptops awake over the weekend so that it looked like they were working more. That’s f&*#ing crazy!!
The real kicker is that we all know results are rarely linked to the number of hours you work. The article admits as much in it’s conclusion, saying that:
“a critical implication of this research is that working long hours is not necessary for high quality work.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
There was one glimmer of hope in the article. A single team was able to wall itself off from the expectations of the rest of the company and create a little utopian environment that ignored the myth of the “ideal worker”.
“They traveled little, worked reasonable days (e.g., 9-5) and often worked from home, without apparent penalty[…] We kind of have a shared agreement as to what work–life balance is on our team[…] We’ve really designed the whole business [unit] around having intellectual freedom, making a lot of money, [and] having work–life balance. It’s pretty rare.”
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Remember the ‘busiest woman alive’ I was telling you about earlier?
Well, after two years of being insanely busy she was set to get promoted. It was a forgone conclusion. After-all, no one who worked that many hours could be bad at their job… right?
Wrong. A few weeks before promotions came out she was let go for poor performance.
I’m embarrassed to admit this, but when I found out she was fired I was actually happy. Learning that someone else had failed made me feel better about myself, and it meant I had a better shot of getting promoted.
I cringe admitting that, but it’s the truth.
At the heart of it, our internal competitiveness with one another is why we lie about how many hours we work. For most of our lives we’re told that the world is a zero-sum game. In order for you to succeed, someone else has to fail. Only one person can be top of the class at school. There are only so many of those coveted banking, consulting, law, and tech jobs. There are only so many employees that can get a top-bucket bonus.
But the world isn’t a zero-sum game. We’re not all competing against each other. It’s ok to be honest and vulnerable and ask for help sometimes. You’d be surprised how many people are going through the same thing as you.
So next time someone asks you, “How’s it going?”, don’t lie and by saying you’re “crazy busy.” Give an honest answer. Don’t try and sound important and make them feel inferior because they aren’t as busy as you.
The true top-performers don’t need to pretend to be busy and important. They don’t need someone else to fail so that they can succeed. They go about their work quietly and efficiently, and let their results do the talking.
At least that’s my take on this phenomenon.
Now I want to hear yours.
Why do you think we lie about how many hours we work?
Leave a comment below and let us know.