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Don't favor the illusion of extraordinary effort over actual productivity

Life work

Erin Reid, a professor at Boston University's Questrom School of Business, recently published a study in the academic journal Organization Science with an eye toward the number of hours the men and women at the unnamed, high-level consulting firm she embedded herself with reported. Many, if not most, of the consultants, accountants, lawyers and bankers at the highest-level firms work long hours, are able to drop everything at a moment's notice, and often sacrifice their nights and weekends to their jobs.

Sound familiar?

Her study, summarized here by Neil Irwin of the New York Times, broke employees into three groups. There was one group, whom we'll call Group A, that embraced the firm's workaholic culture, and the firm rewarded them with positive performance reviews and promotions. There was Group B, who resisted working long hours and requested a lighter travel load; they typically received negative reviews and were passed over for promotions. And then there was Group C, a set of employees that worked like Group B and yet managed to be treated like members of Group A.

How did they do it?

They lined up local clients, allowing their travel to be completed in one day. They aligned themselves with like-minded co-workers, members of Group C tended to have young children, and covered for each other when life intervened with work. In short, they worked smarter than Group A and Group B. “I try to head out by 5, get home at 5:30, have dinner, play with my daughter,” said one employee. Working less didn't mean working any less hard, however. “I know what clients are expecting. So I deliver above that."

While the actual duties that accountants, bankers, and lawyers perform don't have much in common with coaching football, many of the demands are the same: high-pressure, high-rewards.

Reading this study reminded me of a recent conversation with a staff member of a Power Five program. This coach worked for a head coach that sent his assistants home by 7 p.m. more often than not and gave them nearly the entire month of July off, and their performance didn't suffer for it. This program regularly competes for conference championships and is a fixture in the late December/early January bowl schedule. In the end, coaches - like, surely, the consultants Reid studied - tended to work more efficiently in the hours they performed their job when their job allowed them time to themselves.

"The fact that the consultants 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 signaling 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," Irwin writes. "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, favoring the illusion of extraordinary effort over actual productivity."

Don't let your staff fall into that trap.