Take work home and on holiday with you?
Perhaps there is a good business reason for this, a big project you need to land, a complex negotiation or an immovable and impending deadline. But if it's business as usual and you find this pattern is the norm, it’s time to ask yourself what or whom is driving this behaviour?
I was talking with a senior Executive this week, as we enjoyed coffee in the afternoon sunshine in Covent Garden. Although the meeting was business related, he had begun work at 7am, it was now 3pm and although he was completely up to date with his work, he started to feel guilty about not being present at work. What was this guilty feeling trying to tell him and was it in his best interest to listen to it?
The psychological explanation for this guilt is a primal fear of ostracism, the fear of exclusion from the group or rejection by one’s peers. In the animal kingdom as well as in primitive human society, the consequences of ostracism could be so severe, resulting in starvation and death that we have developed a highly efficient warning system to detect and respond to it.
But this is extreme, right? An early cut from the office is unlikely to lead to such dire circumstances, so why are we still so afraid? Well the short answer is that although we have evolved, our brains are hard-wired for a more primitive existence. This causes us to act, or rather overreact, to the perceived threat.
We have all heard and probably even made comments ourselves about colleagues who leave early on time, “half day is it” or “early cut today”. Whilst made in jest, there is a serious side, as they are a way for the commentator to signify their status as the harder worker and reinforce the norms of the group. What they are saying is ‘I work harder than you do therefore I have more right to belong than you’, ‘you are letting the team down’, ‘you are different from us’.
It is these comments or more accurately the fear of the consequences of these comments; being singled out as a shirker, a lightweight or passenger that triggers your guilt response. The guilt is your body’s way of warning you that you have stepped outside the norm and that behaving in this way may be harmful to you and your future ambitions.
As Maslow observed in his theory of human motivation, ostracism uniquely poses a threat to four fundamental human needs; the need to belong, the need for control in social situations, the need to maintain high levels of self-esteem and the need to have a sense of a meaningful existence. A threat to these needs produces psychological distress and pain. So to alleviate the distress you modify your behaviour and wait for others, often the boss to leave before you feel safe to do so too.
So coming back to my example of my guilty Executive struggling to enjoy his coffee in the late afternoon sun, it does not matter that he was in at 7am and had already completed an eight hour day, or that he had missed his lunch. What matters is how others see this, or more specifically, how he believes others will perceive this.
You would think that as the leader, whether it is a team, department or the whole organisation you lead, this would not affect you. You are in charge so you can leave when you like. But in reality, the pressure is worse. Since you are in charge, everyone expects you to stay latest, work the hardest and set the norm. After all, if you go home at 5.00pm what kind of message will that send?
But, maybe, as the leader, it is exactly the kind of message you should be sending? Letting your people know that you value the results they deliver not the hours they sit at their desk, and more importantly that you trust them. Teach them to work smarter, not longer.
Some brave and forward thinking leaders have taken a stand, either in relation to their own work life balance as with Sheryl Sandberg COO at Facebook or in the case of Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson getting rid of the notion of hours and leave entitlement altogether, to focus on results not presenteeism as proof of effectiveness.
So next time you want to leave work earlier than usual and you find yourself feeling guilty, take a deep breath and ask yourself, do you feel a hundred per cent comfortable that you are up to date on your projects and tasks? Are you certain your absence will not harm the business in any way? Have you achieved what was reasonably achievable today? If the answer is yes, then relax there is no danger. Enjoy this time, safe in the knowledge when you do return to work again tomorrow morning you will be better for it.
If you agree share this article and spread the word, its productivity not presenteeism that matters.