WHERE I WORK OUR biggest problem can t be discussed in public. We re constantly given more work than we can manage, and then we have to pretend that we re going to do everything. If you express your concern aloud , you re treated like you re not a team player.
Here s a trick for getting people to do things you could never ask them to do without getting in trouble. The various branches of the military have been using this technique for years : They encourage recruits who are a few weeks ahead of the brand-new initiates to abuse their peers in ways that people in official positions of authority could never get away with. People will do things to their coworkers that would land their bosses in the slammer if they did the same things.
This is exactly what organizations do when nobody in authority ever says a word, writes a policy, or publishes a document that calls for an unhealthy workload. Who could do such a thing? Instead, bosses make unrealistic demands and then count on the fact that everybody will sit there and take it. Although it s true that leaders may use their influence to push people to work insane hours or take on insane workloads, if employees put up with the abuse or watch others put up with it, everyone becomes a party to the problem. It s a conspiracy of silence.
If new employees speak their minds about issues of work-life balance, they re acutely aware of the fact that if they say something in public, they aren t merely questioning the boss, they re going toe to toe with the entire culture. And if they take on the culture, they won t be seen as team players.
This is a conversation that has to start with Mutual Purpose. Go straight for the issue of being a team player:
I d like to talk about a subject that most people don t seem comfortable discussing in public. My goal is to make sure that we re all able to contribute to the company and meet our objectives. I want to be a team player, and I want to understand what that takes.
Next, blend facts and your tentative conclusions:
There are times when I feel like we re taking on assignments we know we can t keep. I know I do. We look around the room and nobody is saying anything, so we all smile politely and agree. I get the sense that we re hoping that others won t be able to meet their obligations, and then, if they speak up first, we won t get in trouble for missing our deadlines. It s like playing chicken. Who will be the first to turn away from the head-on collision of a massive assignment soon to meet an impossible deadline? Could we talk about this subject, or am I the only one who sees it this way?
At this point you ll have to explore all the underlying sources that are leading to a culture of impossibility . Don t point fingers; look for causes. Remember, the world around you has been perfectly organized to create a culture in which smart people are doing stupid things. What are you doing to each other? How many of the issues are structural? What s going on in the environment that s forcing people into such unfavorable circumstances?
This is a huge issue. It s causing more stress with more people than most of us might imagine. As international competition increases and resources continue to be cut, hours increase. The workload goes from doable, to nearly impossible, to a joke. We re now overworked, stressed, and dishonest.
This is probably a conversation you want to have with several people in private before bringing it up in public. Unlike just about everything we ve talked about until now, this is not a problem that is solved one to one because it s part of the whole culture. But it is a problem that is best prepared one to one. Meet with several colleagues. See if others share your concerns. If they do, ask them to share their honest opinions when you do bring up the issue. Then go public.