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The East African : May 10th 2015
The EastAfrican 52 BUSINESS MAY 9-15,2015 MANAG E R ‘Ask fo≥giveness, not pe≥mission’ and othe≥ o∞ce su≥vival games people play COMMENTARY NEIL IRWIN “Some of the people ostensibly turning in those 80- or 90-hour workweeks, particularly men, may just be faking it.” I magine an elite professional services firm with a high-performing, workaholic culture. Everyone is expected to turn on a dime to serve a client, travel at a moment’s notice and be available pretty much every evening and weekend. It can make for a gruelling work life, but at the highest levels of accounting, law, investment banking and consulting firms, it is just how things are. Except for one dirty little se- cret: Some of the people ostensibly turning in those 80- or 90hour workweeks, particularly men, may just be faking it. Many of them were, at least, at one elite consulting firm studied by Erin Reid, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. It’s impossible to know if what she learned at that unidentified consulting firm applies across the world of work more broadly. But her research, published in the academic journal Organisation Science, offers a way to understand how the professional world differs between men and women, and some of the ways a hard-charging culture that emphasises long hours above all can make some companies worse off. Prof Reid interviewed more than 100 people in the US offices of a global consulting firm and had access to performance reviews and internal human resources documents. At the firm there was a strong culture around long hours and responding to clients promptly. “When the client needs me to be somewhere, I just have to be there,” said one of the consultants Prof Reid interviewed. “And if you can’t be there, it’s probably because you’ve got another client meeting at the same time. You know it’s tough to say I can’t be there because my son had a Cub Scout meeting.” Some people fully embraced this culture and put in the long hours; they tended to be top performers. Others openly pushed back, insisting upon lighter and more flexible work hours, or less travel; they were punished in their performance reviews. The third group is most inter- esting. Some 31 per cent of the men and 11 per cent of the women whose records Prof Reid examined achieved the benefits of a more moderate work schedule without explicitly asking for it. They made an effort to line up clients who were local, reducing the need for travel. When they skipped work to spend time with their children or spouse, they didn’t call attention to it. One team on which several members had small children agreed among themselves to cover for one another so that everyone could have more flexible hours. A male junior manager de- scribed working to have repeat consulting engagements with a company near enough to his home that he could take care of it with day trips. “I try to head out by 5, get home at 5:30, have dinner, play with my daughter,” he said, adding that he generally kept weekend work down to two hours of catching up on e-mail. Despite the limited hours, he said: “I know what clients are expecting. So I deliver above that.” He received a high performance review and a promotion. What is fascinating about the firm Prof Reid studied is that these people, who in her terminology were “passing” as worka- holics, received performance reviews that were as strong as their hyper-ambitious colleagues. For people who were good at faking it, there was no real damage done by their lighter workloads. A second finding is that women, particularly those with young children, were much more likely to request greater flexibility through more formal means, such as returning from maternity leave with an explicitly reduced schedule. Men who requested a paternity leave seemed to be punished at review time and so may have felt more need to take time to spend with their families through those unofficial methods. The result of this is easy to see: Those specifically requesting a lighter workload, who were disproportionately women, suffered in their performance reviews; those who took a lighter workload more discreetly didn’t suffer. The maxim of “ask forgiveness, not permission” seemed to apply. It would be unwise to ex- trapolate too much from one firm, but Prof Reid said in an interview that since publishing a summary of her research in Harvard Business Review she has heard from people in a variety of industries describing the same dynamic. High-octane professional The person working 80 hours isn’t necessarily serving clients any better than the person working 50 hours service firms are that way for a reason, and no one would doubt that insane hours and lots of travel can be necessary if you’re a lawyer on the verge of a big trial, an accountant right before tax day or an investment banker advising on a huge merger. But the fact that the con- sultants who quietly lightened their workload did just as well in their performance reviews as those who were truly working 80 or more hours a week suggests that in normal times, heavy workloads may be more about signalling devotion to a firm than really being more productive. The person working 80 hours isn’t necessarily serving clients any better than the person working 50. In other words, maybe the real problem isn’t men faking greater devotion to their jobs. Maybe it’s that too many companies reward the wrong things, favouring the illusion of extraordinary effort over actual productivity. Autho≥, jou≥nalist Susan O≥lean on a long ca≥ee≥ and its choices By LILLIAN CUNNINGHAM The Washington Post THERE’S HARDLY a pocket of the media cosmos with more literary journalism stars than the New Yorker, and Susan Orlean has been one of its bright fixtures. She joined the magazine more than two decades ago, writing stories and books about gospel singers and orchid thieves and Dick Cheney, about origami and Rin Tin Tin, too. She talked with The Washington Post about her career and inspirations. What has been a key to your career success? I really love what I do, and I be- lieve in what I do. There’s a mission that I’ve always felt in my work, which is to bring people to learn about the world. Having a purpose has made me look at my professional life as serving that purpose, rather than the other way around. It’s always been very natural to talk to the person on the street, to turn the corner that leads to who knows where. Then I come back filled with this excitement of wanting to take people by the sleeve and say, “Come here! You’re not going to believe how interesting this is!” Even as a kid, I felt that. It’s curiosity, coupled with the desire to encourage other people to experience that curiosity. Is there a lesson you learned the hard way? Never do something for the wrong reason. If you take on a project for a reason other than what you really are comfortable with, it’ll come back to haunt you. There are plenty of things we all have to do — in every profession — that are not necessarily the thing If you take on a project for a reason other than what you really are comfortable with, it’ll come back to haunt you.” we dreamed of doing, but having a sense of why you’re doing it and being comfortable with that seems to me essential. Even if the reason is simply: “I need to earn some more money, and I’m going to do this project because it pays well.” That’s a perfectly authentic, reasonable choice to make. But you do need to know that’s why you’re doing it and be honest with yourself. Every time I lied to myself about why I had chosen a certain project, it turned out to be incredibly difficult and unsatisfying. What’s the best piece of advice someone has ever given you? I got a lot of great advice from my dad. My father was really, really the author of my particular personality. He gave me a million pieces of advice, but one that comes up all the time is: Anything that can be fixed with money isn’t worth crying over. In other words, the things that really matter, that really should move you and concern you and take a lot out of you emotionally, are not the things of the material world that can be simply fixed by throwing money at them. To me, it was sort of spiritual in its point, which is that there are big things that require a lot of you, but those are different things.
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