Well-Being//

Dysfunction Isn’t Heroism

We are profoundly confused about the nature of hard work.

My coaching practice with senior leaders and my work with MBA students at Stanford provides me with a perspective on a wide range of organizations, from early-stage startups to global corporations. And I commonly hear about people doing things like this:

  • Forgoing sleep in order to continue working at night (usually on low-value email)
  • Scheduling events back-to-back all day and literally running from one to the next
  • Minimizing time with family and skipping workouts and other forms of self-care
  • Eating meals alone at a desk

This is deeply dysfunctional, and we know it. We know that sufficient sleep is essential for effective leadership, optimal performance, and emotion regulation. We know that time for reflection is necessary to do our best work and to learn from experience. We know that the sense of well-being that can come from strong personal relationships, regular physical activity and other forms of self-care is associated with improved performance. And we know that eating together strengthens teams.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that hard work is unnecessary or can be avoided. I have the privilege of coaching and teaching people who are deeply passionate about their work or their professional education, and they dedicate extensive time and effort to the process, just as I do. But our culture is profoundly confused about the nature of hard work, a confusion that’s evident in the counterproductive practices noted above.

While vast numbers of workers in various sectors of the economy feel obligated to go along with similar practices or risk losing their jobs, that’s rarely true for the people I coach and teach. The people I work with don’t engage in these practices because they’re being forced to; while they may feel pressure to perform at a high level, they freely chose to take on a senior management position or to pursue an MBA at Stanford. And I’d guess that many professionals who find themselves having similar experiences also feel a sense of agency; to some extent, they’re working this way by choice, particularly in elite organizations. But why?

One fundamental driver is that we’ve recast dysfunction as heroic sacrifice.We’ve collectively created a narrative around the nature of work that not only justifies such dysfunctional practices, but also regards those who engage in them as selfless heroes, sacrificing sleep, relationships, and even their health in order to help the organization achieve its goals. We brag about how little sleep we’re getting, how busy and over-scheduled we are, how poorly we take care of ourselves–all of which plays into and reinforces this narrative of heroic sacrifice.

So what can we do about it?

Get educated. As a starting point, the articles and papers linked above can help us truly understand the ways in which these counterproductive practices actually undermine our effectiveness and hurt our performance. (And there are many more to be found in my Art of Self-Coaching archive.)

Experiment. We can try committing to a better sleep regimen, regular exercise, or a mindfulness practice. We can put some boundaries in place and stick to them. We can schedule some open space on our calendar and leave it there. We can invest in self-care on a consistent basis. And then see what happens. (If you’re like my clients and students, I suspect you’ll find yourself performing at a higher level while feeling better.)

Change the narrative. The stories we tell ourselves about the world have an impact on our experience in it. Ultimately we have to recognize that there’s a difference between actual heroic sacrifices and imaginary ones, and we need to see this distinction clearly. Hard work is a wonderful thing–but dysfunction isn’t heroism. (Something that I find helpful is to express appreciation for actual heroes–for example, by donating to Spirit of America or the Red Cross or the Season of Sharing fund.)

Ed Batista is an executive coach in San Francisco and a Lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He is writing a book on self-coaching for HBR Press and posts regularly at www.edbatista.com.

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