Acknowledging the Elephant in the Room
There is a piece of advice that I frequently heard given (and probably even doled out myself) over the course of my corporate career, that now with a little distance and perspective strikes me as absolutely absurd.
Learn to accept that you are going to drop balls… just make sure you don’t drop the glass ones.
Now I don’t mean to imply that learning to prioritize isn’t important. Or that we don’t all find ourselves with more on our list than we can manage to get done in a given timeframe. What really strikes me about this advice is the specific image of having, and then dropping, the ball. This particular metaphor goes well beyond the idea of prioritizing your efforts on the most important tasks at hand. It speaks to an environment where lowering your personal standards is a pre-requisite for success.
I now see this piece of advice as symptomatic of a serious issue that I fear is slowly undermining the ability of many businesses to remain relevant for the future. Unfortunately, it’s also an issue that has become a taboo subject within those same organizations…excessive employee workload.
A serious issue that I fear is slowly undermining the ability of many businesses to remain relevant for the future
Acknowledging the Elephant in the Room
Has the zeal to drive cost down through increasingly lean organizations resulted in an untenable workload for many employees? Have we fully considered the broader implications of sustained excessive workload on the effectiveness of our organizations?
What is the impact of viewing employees as a cost of doing business that is to be minimized, rather than as the foundation of the business itself? Have we become so addicted to the headcount lever and the short-term margin fix it can so easily provide, that challenging headcount levels has become tantamount to sacrilege?
The Implications Beyond Dropped Balls
It can be easy for executive leadership to rationalize an excessively lean organization due to their relative isolation from the work itself and through their strong belief in productivity programs and the virtues of “stretch.” Middle managers are more likely to understand the gravity of the situation, but avoid raising the issue out of fear of appearing weak or unsupportive of the leadership.
What is the impact of viewing employees as a cost of doing business that is to be minimized, rather than as the foundation of the business itself?
Meanwhile, the employee learns to accept that you are going to drop balls… Unfortunately, along with those balls, the business also loses a few other important things.
Most businesses go to great effort to recruit and hire employees with a strong success record and high integrity. People who are accustomed to getting the job done – not dropping balls. Suddenly these recruits find themselves in an environment where despite a 50-60 hour workweek, they feel like they are losing ground. Some will figure out how to work the system… how not to drop the ‘glass’ balls. Some will simply lower their standards, put their heads down and do the best that they can. Others will leave. Unfortunately the ones that leave may be those with both the highest capability and the highest integrity.
It is simply not possible to maintain a highly engaged workforce in an environment of sustained excessive workload. Working in an environment where your ability to succeed is severely challenged undermines every level of human motivation. Those employees who stay will disengage by necessity… out of pure self-preservation. The level of disengagement will vary. Some will become active cynics, further adding to the toxic nature of the culture. Some will simply go through the motions and check the boxes they can. Your most engaged employees will find their own definition of success by focusing their efforts where they see the best opportunity to add value, not necessarily on what your business needs most for success.
It is simply not possible to maintain a highly engaged workforce in an environment of sustained excessive workload.
To expect an over-worked organization to be innovative is not realistic. Innovative thought requires the connection of disparate ideas. It requires the opportunity to be exposed to different thinking and ideas. It requires inspiration. It requires white space not available in an overworked organization.
The quality that your customer actually feels is big Q, or “how well the product achieves its intended purpose and satisfies the ultimate needs of the customer.” It goes far beyond little q or “the output meets the spec or the blueprint.” Achieving big Q is much harder to achieve than little q. It requires the space to step back from the details, integrate information and understand the big picture. It requires time and perspective not available in an overworked organization.
What can a Leader do?
Acknowledge the elephant in the room. As you launch your plans for 2014, challenge yourself to get real about the workload your employees are managing and the impact it is having on the organization’s effectiveness. Have the courage to initiate the conversation with leadership to raise awareness of the issue and force a conscious discussion of the trade-offs.
While keeping employment levels extremely low can provide value to the short term investor, it can come at a very real cost to the ability of your organization to provide the high-quality innovative products and services necessary for long term success. This is the real glass ball my friends, and it’s balancing precariously on the back of the elephant in the room.
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