Your client meeting is at 10 a.m. in a city two hours away. There is a flight at 4 a.m. and the next is at 9 a.m. You can take the first and maybe finish some work on the way. Or you can request the client to reschedule. What would you choose?
If you are the kind who would compulsively pick the 4 a.m. flight, skip sleep altogether (“might as well finish some pending reports and nap on the flight”), you are keenly aware of the rising number of people being laid off and the churn in the upper ranks of the corporate world. Or, more likely, you are yet another victim of workism.
Not too long ago, journalist Derek Thompson described workism as “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”
More recently, in his TED talk, Azim Shariff, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, noted that we tend to see a harder-working person as a “more moral”, better work partner, even though they add no extra value. He describes workism as a culture that forces all of us to participate and punishes us if we do not keep up. So, “we end up putting more and more in regardless of what comes out the other side.” The more laborious the job, the greater the appreciation even though there may be no direct correlation to tangible results. Everything else becomes less important.
Workism at work
A senior management consultant (“no names, please”), currently helping an MNC bring about a culture change observes that workism is a convenient term to describe what is happening at work. “Workism is a series of corporate behaviors that have seeped into organizations over a period of time. It requires a conscious change in senior leaders to break the mold—like focusing on smarter delivery than longer hours, like linking performance to results than efforts.”
It even extends to everyday attire. “We have this senior leader from the old generation who refuses to be seen in anything other than his suit and tie whether he is addressing two people over coffee or a dozen in the board room. Then we have a whole bunch of smart youngsters always clad in denims and tees, who would rather walk in, deliver, and get out than hang around and be seen to be busy.”
So, is it just a matter of bridging the generation gap? “There is a lot more,” my consultant friend tells me.
“The biggest challenge before us is to define the goal. The goal is not about the hours we put in and what we wear at work. Surprising as it might sound, we found the youngsters to be clearer about the goal than the seniors; they have a surprising level of clarity on what they would like to do and not to, in their work environment and are willing to defy the stereotypes.”
Inverting the pyramid
The team is now attempting a radical management exercise where the newbies on the block would talk about the organization’s goals in informal meetings with the seniors. This inversion of the pyramid is sure to spark conflicts initially. “But It’s worth the try. What better way to motivate individuals than by declaring that we will measure you for what you deliver, not for all those hours you clock in. We expect this to usher in a positive entrepreneurial mindset and a sense of real purpose.”
Charlotte Kramer, author of The Purpose Myth: Change the World, Not Your Job notes that “70% of millennials want to quit their jobs on the grounds of lack of purpose, and this should be no surprise; the positions we take were created to fill our pockets (if we’re lucky), not to fulfil our dreams. To think otherwise is to suggest that one’s individual purpose can be matched with a corporation’s purpose.”
The challenge for organizations today is to inject every member of the team with a common purpose regardless of one’s role. That’s where culture-change exercises are likely to become more common across domains—to change good old feel-right workism to measurable, no-nonsense purpose-ism. The organization should be sensitive to the individual’s purpose; the individuals should willingly buy into the larger team goal.
You took the later flight but after persuading the client to meet you for lunch at place you knew was her favorite. Not once did you open the laptop, but by the time the desserts arrived, you had convinced her of the positives of working with you. In turn, she convinced you to stay back and address her top team where you did use the slides to make a convincing case. That quadrupled your workload, but you chose to sleep during the late-night flight back home. You knew tomorrow would be excitingly busy. Moral: There are times when the “lazier” 9 a.m. flights are more productive than the "harder working” 4 a.m. flights.