Care of Self and Care of Others

by Patricia Wheeler, Ph.D.

My client, an up-and-coming project engineer with an MBA recently told me that she needed to leave a job she liked and find another position.  “Don’t get me wrong,” she said, “I love my job.  I’m doing important work that I’m interested in…and they think I’m a superstar.”  Why leave, I asked?  “I can’t keep up the pace with the 15 hour days I’ve been keeping – I’m always working – always on call” she replied.  Over the past several months, I’ve heard this story three times.  The stories are similar…and one common theme involves receiving regular after-hours phone calls and BlackBerry messages, as well as middle of the night e-mails from the boss. 

When I asked her what she’d expected and agreed to in the realm of her role and her availability, she said that they had never clarified expectations.  Others on her team received similar messages, and they interpreted from these messages that the organization’s culture is that you must be available whenever the boss calls…and you are expected to respond to or act upon these messages, regardless of the day or time.  And by the way, this team had a lot of turnover, which is no surprise.

Work/life integration is a hot topic within organizations today.  Forward-thinking companies create programs that offer workers with the flexibility that they demand:  onsite child care, flex time, telecommuting, job-sharing….and the list goes on.  But despite the creation of official programs, at the end of the day, individuals look to their managers to set the bar for work style. 

When I suggested that my client approach her boss to discuss expectations, she pushed back, commenting that the 14 hour day was part of her corporate culture.  She worried that she would be viewed as weak, not a team player, and not committed to the company.  This would impact her trajectory and reputation within the firm, and may even put added pressure on her peers who received the same demands and operated according to the prevailing norms.

Must we be accountable to the corporate treadmill 24/7?  What decisions must we make to take care of ourselves and ensure that we stay committed to both our lives and our profession?  And what is the responsibility of the boss or manager to understand the impact she/he is making on an already good performer?

We know that to maintain excellent long-term performance, people must take care of themselves physically and emotionally.  Lack of balance eventually produces burn-out…and possibly worse.  Physician Esther Sternberg, author of The Balance Within, cites growing evidence that when we’re burned out, it’s not just a psychological state….our hormones respond in a way that opens the door to serious health problems. 

And we know that leaders and managers have responsibilities that go beyond performance and a results-orientation.  They are, at the end of the day, responsible for retaining great talent, for ensuring alignment with the most important priorities, and for getting the most sustainable performance from their people.  So what must results-driven leaders/managers do to balance demand for results against the impact on their people?

Here are four tips for leaders who must engage, develop and retain talented people:

  1. Learn to differentiate between what’s urgent and what’s important.  The tried and true saying is “we lose the important in the service of the urgent.” Clarify and respect priorities.  Just because details occur to you doesn’t mean you necessarily need to share them or your stream of consciousness with your direct reports.  
  2. Clarify your availability expectations to those who report to you.  You may think they know what you expect…but do they really?  Discuss what you regularly expect about night, weekend and holiday availability.  How do you define and what do you expect during actual emergencies?  Clarify the rules of engagement and then it is easier to manage the exceptions.  Knowing this will allow your people the rest they need to be optimally focused during the time you need them. 
  3. Save your messages for business hours.  When you are tempted to send a late-night message, challenge yourself to wait until morning.  At the very least, save messages as drafts and send them during business hours.  Remember that when you are connected 24/7, your direct reports assume that this is a part of the required corporate culture, whether you articulate this message or not.  This is not easy or always practical, as many managers are up at 4am and on the job, and in a global world we deal with challenging time zone issues.  But be clear on when you expect people to respond.
  4. Step away from the BlackBerry!  Easier said than done. Apart from the corporate messages about work/life integration, what signals do you send your people?  How often do you work late into the night?  How do you recharge your batteries?  How much vacation and “renewal time” do you take for yourself?  Do you have a full, robust life after work?

Suggested action steps from the coach:  Track your “messaging behavior” and your team’s, for a few weeks.  Clarify what you expect….and what you don’t.  And make sure you and your people are spending enough “down time” to recharge and stay engaged in your work.

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