Dodging that Culture of Excellence

With the bulk of my experience being in the United States, any cross-cultural comparison I make is based on hearsay, or what I’ve read, so take it with a grain of salt. But when I think about things like how many hours the typical professional in the US works versus their European counterparts, it seems that our colleagues across the pond tend to maintain a better work-life balance. I know for me, the bar is set pretty high: only working 40 hours a week feels like slacking, and there’s always more work to do. But I also recognize that working more than 40 results in poorer quality and productivity. And we all need to take into account what working more than 40 does to us both as managers and to our employees.

Burning the Midnight OilWhat I perceive in a lot of companies is that working 50, or 60, or 70 hours a week is considered indicative of a “culture of excellence.” It demonstrates a strong work ethic, a willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done, and a commitment to the customer. But it doesn’t communicate a positive and supportive commitment from the company to their employees, nor does it actually result in quality work over long periods of time.

What’s worse, this culture can translate into treating employees who only work 40 hours a week, and who want to just do their work and go home at the end of the day, as if they were inferior. They might be perceived as not contributing as much, which to be fair they aren’t, and so they are viewed negatively. The truth is that they’re doing just fine, and we have developed an unhealthy expectation for our employees.

You burn more oil at midnight than at noon. Similarly, employees burning too long will burn out, and efficient employees are viewed negatively unnecessarily.

We need to step back and discipline ourselves on a few matters. Employees who do good work, and are present and engaged, are just as valuable as those who are burning on all cylinders. That word “valuable” is loaded, and you might immediately think, “But they’re not producing as much value for the company!” You might be right in that, in a financial sense. But they have value as human beings, and should be treated with dignity regardless. All employees add value to our work environment, and when you treat all employees equally with dignity and respect, it creates a positive feedback loop. Your average employee will perform above-average in an environment that is supportive and which both establishes and encourages a healthy work-life balance.

I don’t want the culture of excellence that defines work-life as “live to work” and “60 hours is the baseline.” What is truly excellent is putting our customers first, and recognizing that as managers, our customers are the people we serve, which includes our employees. The employee relationship is transactional, but also multifaceted. We exchange money for services. But we want respect, and loyalty, and diligence, and you don’t get all that for free. Money for services, respect for respect, loyalty for loyalty, diligence for diligence. We have to work to create a culture that promotes investment in one another. At the end of the day, the people are the ones who get the job done, and as managers we must demonstrate that we are just as committed to our people as we are to the job.

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