It’s a scene that’s been played out in countless movies and television shows, and, for better or worse, in real corporate offices everywhere.
A determined go-getter logs punishing hours—days, nights, weekends—on a tireless quest to earn that big promotion, missing wedding anniversaries, kids’ soccer games and other important personal stuff along the way.
In the movies, the ultra-ambitious workaholic eventually has some kind of epiphany, learns to slow down, stops doggedly pursuing the corner office, and starts spending more time actually living life.
In the real world, however, there’s a nagging perception that the “all work, all the time” approach is still the surest way to the top.
Some interesting new research, however, suggests that simply giving the appearance of a slavish dedication to your work may be enough to get there—especially if you’re a man.
That’s what Boston University’s Erin Reid found in a study of one global consulting firm’s American offices, the findings of which were recently published in Organization Science.
Reid, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at BU’s Questrom School of Business, interviewed more than 100 employees at said consultancy. She also had access to performance reviews as well as internal HR documents within the firm, which has “a strong culture around long hours and responding to clients promptly,” according to a New York Times piece highlighting some of Reid’s findings.
Her research found that those who embraced this culture tended to be top performers, while those who resisted it—insisting upon more flexible work schedules or less travel, for instance—were “punished in their performance reviews,” according to the Times.
Overall, Reid found that both men and women were likely to have trouble with “always on” expectations within the firm. It was how men coped with these demands “that differed strikingly,” Reid wrote in a recent Harvard Business Review summary of her findings.
For instance, women who struggled with work hours tended to take formal accommodations, reducing their work hours but also “revealing their inability to be true ideal workers,” wrote Reid, noting that these female employees “were consequently marginalized within the firm.”
Men, meanwhile, often found unobtrusive, discreet ways to alter the structure of their work—such as seeking mostly local clients or building alliances with other colleagues, for example—that allowed them to work more predictable schedules in the range of 50-to-60 hours per week.
“In doing so,” wrote Reid, “they were able to work far less than those who fully devoted themselves to work, and had greater control over when and where those hours were worked, yet were able to ‘pass’ as ideal workers, evading penalties for their noncompliance.”
Take Lloyd (not his real name), a senior manager at the firm. Lloyd was “deeply skeptical about the necessity of being an ideal worker, and was unwilling to fully comply” with steep expectations, according to Reid.
“He described to me how, by using local clients, telecommuting and controlling information about his whereabouts, he found ways to work and travel less without being found out,” wrote Reid, noting that “Lloyd” even went skiing during the day five times in the week prior to their interview.
“He clarified,” added Reid, “that these were work days, not vacation days.”
Reid is careful to point out that the lessons learned from this unidentified firm can’t necessarily be applied to other organizations. And she acknowledges that men experience difficulties meeting job demands just like women do, noting that men also “face resistance and penalties” for expressing reservations about working more hours, being available on nights and weekends and so on.
What seems to vary, she says, “is that many men are able to stray while passing as fully devoted.”
Reid’s findings underscore yet another example of the disparities that still exist between how men and women are viewed in the workplace. But the notion of “passing” also highlights the flaws in how and why some organizations reward employees, she concludes.
“Passing is not a good strategy for the organization as a whole,” according to Reid. “Not only does it involve an element of deception between colleagues, bosses and subordinates, it also perpetuates the myth that those who are successful are also all wholly devoted to work.”
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