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How business leaders can avoid falling into the "work harder" trap

by Stephen Bates on 19 Sep 2016

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"Big money is not made by bustling about. Big money is made by thinking."
John Spedan Lewis - Founder of the John Lewis Partnership

Over 50 years ago, John Spedan Lewis was asked, in an open letter in the John Lewis weekly in-house magazine, why the haberdashery buyers did not keep regular business hours. His reply was simply that he did not pay them on their hours but on their results. A man ahead of his time.

Yet today, we still too often focus on hours worked. "We need to work harder on this!" How many times have you heard this phrase? It's safe to say that you've heard or said these words or similar for most of your life. Parents, teachers, bosses: it's the default response to the question: how can we be more successful? And it's often seen as the solution in situations where people are feeling particularly under pressure. But the question is, should it be?

The answer is definitely not. Simply working harder is a trap that leads to inefficiency and reactivity. But it can be a hard habit to break because we are so conditioned into believing it is a good thing - and we don't want to let this mindset go.

The Worker Zone

Getting out of the Worker Zone is the first step for many business leaders' career progression but, to be truly effective, we need to discipline ourselves to not step back into it when the pressure is on - or because we get a sense of achievement from doing so.

The Worker Zone is the entry point for most of us in our careers, so it is all too easy to go back into it. Consequently, we end up wasting so much of our time doing tasks that are beneath our pay grade and talents. All managers and innovators have work that only they can do and they should not be dropping below this level unless a worthwhile tangible benefit is really there.

Business leaders need to stay in their Genius Zone as much of the time as possible. You are paid to think, not to fix the coffee machine. I challenge you to add up the hours you waste, thinking you are working hard. You might be surprised by the results.

Rethinking what hard work means

The next question in the work harder trap is this: when will you be working hard enough? If you have the common belief that working hard is a good thing, then this is an important question to answer.

Most people, who are serious about their jobs, careers and businesses, have no problem putting the hours in. The UK is certainly not short of committed people with many extra hours and weekends being worked. But herein lies the trap. How many hours will be enough? How much blood sweat and tears will equal "working hard"?

The other and more useful way of thinking about this is simply: how much time are you wasting by working hard? How many new ideas, conversations and time to reflect are you missing by working hard?

Another question for you to ponder: is great thinking really work? Innovators need time to produce their best thinking. When we stay in our Genius Zone and hire others to be in theirs, things get done better and faster. Managers need time to make their systems work better and shouldn't be spending time propping up their system when it's under stress. Their role is to make sure it does not get stressed again.

Working harder frequently creates less, rather than greater productivity. Workers who are always at their maximum get burnt out and morale goes down. Mistakes get made and innovation slows. Great leaders should be making sure that their people are not maxed out. Being maxed out means there is no room to do more or, more importantly, something different.

Are you maxing yourself out by working too hard and expecting others to work as hard as you? Are you giving time, space and the environment for your most brilliant thinkers to work at their best?

Perhaps your boss still measures work as time spent in the office? I frequently meet this mindset in the businesses I work with. Being present in the office is still seen as proof of work, but I'm sure you have had great ideas driving home or on the beach when on holiday. Did you get paid overtime for this thinking?

Do you need to push back on the hours' culture? Are you still creating or sustaining this type of culture? More and more quick and agile thinking is needed to deal with the fastest changing work environment we have ever known. It's tough to be creating when you are burnt out by hours and effort.

So if I were to ask when you were truly working at your best, what would you say? 

If you are going to work hard, do it in your Genius Zone, where you get the best returns for your hard work.

Stephen Bates is the founder of Certain Change Ltd - helping business leaders, entrepreneurs and high achievers deal with disruption; to be confident and highly adaptable to make certain change when it is needed most. 

Over the last 30 years, Stephen's experiences have led to the innovation of high impact techniques, brought together in programmes that cover a unique combination of mind-set and skill-set development for executives, entrepreneurs and high achievers – for them to play and influence others to operate in their Genius Zone.

His goal is to teach people how to understand how they and others make decisions, how to make better ones and, put simply, to get out of their own way to achieve far better results. 

Dealing with disruption

Topics: Leadership

Stephen Bates

Written by Stephen Bates