There are no heroes at our office. When the clock strikes five, the team goes home. If they try to keep working, I tell them that the game’s over and they lost. They either put too much on their plate, got taken off-task, or were wasting time. None of those justify working past five, on a holiday, or over a weekend. The only exception we make is for the founders, and it should be obvious why that’s the case. Read more...
A lot of people think I’m joking when I say this, but I’m not. I would rather shut my company down than ask my team to work overtime. That might sound harsh, because many believe overtime is just part of doing business. But working overtime undermines the values of our company. And if we undermine our own values, how could I expect anyone to believe in them?
Having this conversation with clients, especially in times of crisis, can be difficult and uncomfortable. But if I’ve learned one thing starting Big Bang, it’s that I earn my money having difficult conversations.
A conversation like this usually results in the other party feeling overwhelmingly disappointed, if not outright angry. Harsh words are spoken, and they’re usually directed at me. And that’s understandable, because they usually have pretty good reasons to be asking for us to, “just get it done.”
Reason 1: Money
Sometimes a client is presented with an opportunity to win new business, and needs your services to accomplish that goal. I don’t blame our clients for wanting to make more money. The more money they have, the more business I can benefit from.
Reason 2: Pressure
Sometimes a client is put into a difficult situation by one of their customers, pressure that can only be alleviated by the activities we do. I genuinely feel bad when our clients have to deal with issues like this, because I wouldn’t want to be in that situation either.
So why not just do it?
The short answer is: because it erodes leadership, my team will quit, and it destroys the joy associated with the work we do. The long answer is more interesting.
The Hero Mentality
The concept of sacrifice is typically used to persuade employees to comply with working overtime. You know who makes sacrifices? Soldiers do it charging into battle. Firefighters do it running into burning buildings, and police officers do it diving in front of bullets. They make the ultimate sacrifice, and it’s a powerful idea to be associated with. The same goes for the idea of making a difference, or saving the world, or helping out the team. They’re all compliance tactics, and they’re a dangerous habit to get into.
When an employee makes a sacrifice that is dear to their heart, like spending time with family or pursuing a hobby or interest, two things happen: first, they immediately distinguish themselves from the employees who cannot (or choose not to) comply. There are now two groups of employees: The winners who stay late, and the losers who let you down. Yearly reviews just got a whole lot easier.
More importantly, the employee who stays late is then perceived as heroic in the eyes of their team members. Like the dad who worked in the coal mine for sixteen hour shifts, or the marine storming a fortress of evil-doers. Who wouldn’t want a team that would make the ultimate sacrifice for your company?
Of course, this leads to burnout, which is a well-documented and treacherous outcome. From low productivity to high levels of disengagement to costly turnover, it should be clear why burnout should be avoided at all costs. Much like accumulating technical debt, it’s easy to just “put it on the credit card,” so to speak. Unfortunately, credit cards have to be paid off, usually for more than you borrowed. (Check out Peopleware for more information).
But more damning than burnout, this leads to an environment where an employee cannot be seen as a leader without sacrificing the things they hold dear to their heart. How could I promote a loser when they’re surrounded by winners?
It might be tempting for someone to jump at the money they’ll make from their team doing the impossible and going above and beyond. I just wonder how they could justify losing the people that make their team great in the first place.
Any employer can say they have values. Especially in a job interview when everything’s looking real peachy. But values are just words if they break down in a crisis. If I destroy our values by requesting overtime, how will my team ever make real sacrifices for our company? Constantly growing and challenging themselves to learn, being more autonomous, and becoming better people will ask far more of them than putting in an extra ten hours over the weekend.
I guess I am asking them to work overtime after all, just not on the things they consider work.
I'd really like to thank Joannou for helping me with this article. You'll be hearing more about him later. If you think I'm crazy, find me on twitter and we can talk about it. You can also participate in the discussion about this article on hackernews.