Oswald Letter

What message are you sending about what is important?

Working late at the officeTwo of my colleagues forwarded me a recent New York Times article about the temptation of managers to reward employees who work long hours instead of those who produce results. Maybe they were trying to send me a not-so-subtle message!

The article cited a study published in 2010 in which researchers found that employees who were seen at the office during business hours were considered “dependable” and “reliable” by managers. And employees who were in the office late into the evenings or on weekends were viewed as “dedicated” and “committed.” At least to the managers interviewed for this study, it’s not really the results that count.

I once worked for a manager who ran her department that way. She wanted to see her people in the office working long hours. She didn’t arrive particularly early in the mornings, so everyone quickly learned that arriving early didn’t earn any points from the boss because she wasn’t aware of when you might have arrived. The boss typically worked late and expected all of her people to stay at the office until she decided it was time to go home. Of course, none of that was ever stated explicitly, but everyone in the department knew how the game was played.

Did you notice that not once have I mentioned “results” in my description of how our department was run? It’s dangerous to send the message that long hours count but results don’t matter. Currying favor with the boss by logging long hours became a bit of a game. Can you imagine what happens as people are promoted not for what they produce but for the time they spend in the office? It’s not good.

A few years later, I left that company and that manager. When I arrived at my very next job, one of my direct reports loved to play the “long hours” game. She was a young and very talented woman, but she had been trained that being the last one to leave the office was seen as a badge of honor by others in the company. It didn’t matter that very little work was done as the office cleared of coworkers. Little did they know that she stayed late to talk to family on the phone or work on personal projects. They just knew she was the last to leave, and to them her long hours equaled dedication. Luckily for her she also produced great results.

Here’s the deal, as a manager you need to know your people and what they’re working on well enough to know who’s just working and who’s producing results. You need to be able to be aware enough to know when someone is really dazzling you with brilliance and when they’re trying to baffle you with bullshit. That means you must be engaged as a manager. If you’re not, you’re likely to get fooled.

It’s up to you to send a clear message about your expectations and the behaviors that get rewarded. It’s the results that really count. I don’t know about you, but staying later  can often be counterproductive for me. I happen to be much better in the morning than late in the day. If I need to get something important done, I’ll wake up early and tackle it first thing while my mind is sharp. But not everyone works the same way. If I try to impose my style on everyone who works for me it won’t work. You need to understand and accept varying work styles if you’re going to get the best out of your people.

As a manager, you must understand you’re being watched. What you do is much more important than what you say. If you are perceived to be like the managers in the study mentioned above, then people will work to prove to you their value by spending more and more time in the office. It’s imperative that you convey what’s really important to you. My hope is that what really matters to you are the results — and that it is absolutely apparent to everyone who works for you.