Thomas J. DeLong writes in HBR.org on the Busyness Trap:
I frequently talk to MBA students about their careers and aspirations for life. Some of these students worked on Wall Street, and when we talk, a number of them admit that the key to their success was creating the illusion of hard work. One said that he and the other associates would leave their suit coats on their chairs at the end of the work day to make it seem that they hadn’t left for the night — that they were somewhere in the building doing work — when in fact they had gone home.
“We have these little tricks of the trade to create the impression that we are absolutely committed to the organization, even when we don’t have any work,” he told me. “It’s part of managing expectations and our images.”
The trap of busyness is so much a part of corporate culture that many times it clouds our vision of what’s really going on. We expect to be busy; we don’t know what to do when we’re not. The trap of busyness causes us to move with such mindless speed that we’re like the proverbial chicken running around with his head cut off. We plunge into our emails and meetings with a manic energy that forbids reflection, deeply honest conversations, and breaks from the routine.
When I read this part of the post it reminded me of a Seinfeld episode called “The Caddy” where George got his car keys locked in his car and ended up being promoted because of it:
George: Assistant to the General Manager!! You know what that means?!? He’d could be askin’ my advice on trades! Trades, Jerry, I’m a heartbeat away!
Jerry: That’s a hell of an organization they’re running up there. I can’t understand why they haven’t won a pennant in 15 years.
George: And, it is all because of that car. You see, Steinbrenner is like the first guy in, at the crack of dawn. He sees my car, he figures I’m the first guy in. Then, the last person to leave is Wilhelm. He see my car, he figures I’m burning the midnight oil. Between the two of them, they think I’m working an 18 hour day!
Jerry: Locking your keys in your car is the best career move you ever made.
The myths that more is better; that being active equals being effective; that productivity comes out of constant action; are all conventional wisdoms that should be rooted out of our lives. Increased attention, reflection time and actual conversations are much more effective than all this busy-work. As the comments to DeLong’s post point out, the issue is not only the busyness by itself. It is the culture that supports it. It comes from distorted incentives, hazy norms and unclear management focus.
When I read about the “coat trick” in the post I felt sorry for those people. Think about the kind of culture that creates this kind of behavior. The managers at that place created a culture where it was necessary to cheat in order to give an appearance that you are “working properly”. Sad indeed. While this is a great overstatement, I am not surprised that kind of culture brought on the indifference that led to parts of the financial crisis. When a major part of your culture is based on deceit, it shouldn’t surprise you if it migrates to all parts of your organization.
As some of the comments suggest, the culture described is due, in part, to a lack of focus on outcomes. One commenter, David Kaiser, wrote:
Ultimately, smart bosses, and smart clients don’t care about input (how hard you work and how much you sweat), they care about output (what got done, results), and if you can create a lot of value without a lot of effort, so much the better. Aren’t these the people you want to work with and work for anyway, as opposed to those who want you to prove something through “face time” and the appearance of “hard work?”
I write a lot in this blog about the balance between outcomes and process. I think this is a great example of how a focus on process can go wrong. Yes, hard work, perseverance and commitment are important. However, when you create a culture of perceptions instead of a culture of appreciation don’t be surprised if you end up with George Constanta, Lord of the Idiots, as the Assistant to the General Manager.
Does your organization have a culture of perceptions?