Earlier this week I met for happy hour with a dear friend and mentor. We’ve developed a 2x/year ritual where we get together at a mutually delicious spot on Ventura Boulevard, eat chips, drink a pitcher of margaritas, catch up, and swap business-y stories.

Towards the end of our conversation, after adding a quesadilla into the mix and my general enthusiasm + overly-animated hand gestures pulled a drink onto my lap (I was not toasty, btw, as this happened very near the beginning of our visit), we stumbled into territory around the sustainability of current work patterns.

Both of us work with some of the biggest organizations on the planet — global companies with employee numbers in the six figures, those kind of places — and we were finding ourselves on opposite sides of this argument:

Is the way we’re working sustainable?

You probably know my stance is a resounding NO. And usually, I don’t have to hit this point very hard before the person I’m talking to briefly closes their eyes, sighs sadly, nods their head, and agrees with me.

But my friend was saying something entirely different — that the people he works with aren’t suffering, but are actually thriving.

Are they obscenely busy? Yes.

Are they up at all hours for phone calls connecting in some part of Asia? Yes.

Are they hating it? Not in the least.

This has not been my experience at all, so I dug a bit deeper.

There were a couple things that I think explain our differences in perspective.

“You picked this game, so play it.”

First, my friend is an amazing executive coach. As such, part of his responsibility is to help people “grow where they are planted,” at least until they can move.

It does very little good to become extremely disgruntled with ones current situation; it’s far more productive to re-frame the experience in the positive and play by the rules. Like my friend said: “If you’re playing soccer, do you wish you could use your hands? Maybe, but then you wouldn’t be playing soccer. You picked this game, so play it. If you don’t like it, go play something else.”

There’s an incredible amount of truth there.

Here’s the first difference, though: my work isn’t really coaching — I think of what I do as more like a “game architect.” The questions I pose to organizations are: “What game are you making your people play? What lines have you drawn? Are they really the rules that get the best from your employees?”

Both important and valuable perspectives, I think, just very different.

“We’re looking at the wrong thing.”

Second, which I didn’t realize until I got home and changed out of my margarita-scented shirt, is that the issue I thought was about unsustainable work patterns really isn’t about the work pattern at all.

My friend made this point when we were talking, but somehow I didn’t connect the dots then: I work ridiculous hours. He works ridiculous hours. Entrepreneurs of all shapes and sizes have crazy work patterns — but a crazy schedule alone doesn’t necessarily correlate with hatred of ones life.

The schedule isn’t the issue at all. We’re looking at the wrong thing.

CHOICE of our schedule is the issue.

I suspect (my friend and I didn’t get to talk much about this, as I didn’t fully realize it until later) that his clients feel like they have more choice in their schedules than mine do. In these large organizations, he works primarily with more upper level executives. As a generalization, these folks tend to be at a place in their careers where they feel they have more options. Right now, my clients inside big companies tend to be mid-level managers, senior managers, and directors. These folks, in my experience, feel a tremendous lack of options, and in many cases feel trapped by forces beyond their control.

This means the challenge isn’t about busy-ness but about autonomy — how much we feel like we get to make our own decisions around when we work, how we work, etc.

This opens up an entirely new angle of discussion on this topic, because if I’m right and upper level executives are feeling more autonomous — that is, more power and control and choice around how and when they work — my experience tells me pretty clearly that these autonomous feelings are not “trickling down.”

Nor will it, I suspect, without significant effort on the part of the leadership. Why? Because leadership in organizations is like parenting: it’s more caught than taught. Your kids don’t do what you tell them to do, they do what you do.

When senior level leaders in our organizations are working crazy-ass hours — maybe even because they like it! — the message is that everyone should be doing this. A leader would have to work quite hard to convince their employees that they don’t have to answer emails past 9pm if they do it regularly themselves.

Unless the leadership is modeling the desired behavior, it’s pretty difficult (maybe impossible?) to get those habits to spread throughout an organization.

I never understood it quite this way before, but I think this is why emotional sustainability will be so hard to come by in large organizations — if upper level leaders feel like they already have the life they want, they won’t change. And in a hierarchy, without support “from the top” a change simply doesn’t happen.


6 Replies to “Why Big Companies Will Never Be Sustainable Places To Work”

  1. Question 1: Which tasty restaurant on Ventura blvd? {says the woman writing her latest blog from Crave Cafe in Sherman Oaks ;) }

    Question 2: What solution do you propose for a client who finds himself in that position, lacking the choice of schedule? Is there a way to thrive in that situation or by not being sustainable are you saying that external change is necessary (as in moving up in the company, moving out of the company, or going off on his own)?

    As I work on the opposite end of the spectrum – approaching the whole life (mind, body, and soul) and mostly with small business entrepreneurs and solopreneurs, I’m always curious to hear new perspectives!

    • A1: Mexicali near Laurel Canyon

      A2: Great question, Sabrina. This gets complex pretty quickly, right? You listed a few good options. In our work we also find that whatever we can do to help people find and OWN their own “sphere of influence” is remarkably helpful. The truth is that very often we have much more control than we think we do. (This connects with Sharí’s comment, too.) Often, we can learn to direct our work in ways that uses our strengths more, we can find different methods to employ, we can have authentic conversations with our managers about shifting the way we work in order to add more value to the team/org — we do have options. The challenge is that we usually talk ourselves out of taking these options and instead opt for the misery we’re used to. “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t,” that kind of thing.

  2. I think it’s interesting what you are saying about employees do what they see, kind of like kids. (I’m over simplifying it, I know.) If the exec is answering emails at 9pm because that’s what works for him/her, then great. But if the employee assumes that the hidden message is that, you should be doing this too, at what point is it the employees responsibility of choice vs the executive’s expectations.

    I worked for a boss (way back when I had a “real” job) who would send emails at crazy hours. I never, not once, assumed that it was my responsibility to act similarly. I knew that I was in command of my time. She never had a problem with my time management. All the while, my colleagues were driving themselves crazy replying to late night emails and such.

    So when is it the employee’s “fault” vs the leader’s? Hmmm….

    • Great point, Sharí!

      You own your own business now, so I’d say that you’ve probably had entrepreneurial thoughts for a long time. This means you don’t really “fit” in the category of employee that I’m talking about. Like you say, you naturally question things that other people just don’t. My concern is that unless we can get the leaders who run these companies — organizations that are full of people who don’t ask the questions you do — we will constantly be driving people into the ground. And it seems, at least to me, that many leaders aren’t even aware they are doing this.

      I’m going to talk a lot more about this in this week’s post, so thanks for teeing it up. ;-)

  3. Hi Josh,

    Firstly I very much like your conversational writing style, so kudos for that. As a business psychologist I was absolutely delighted to read this blog especially the focus you gave to autonomous choice as part of the sustainable / unsustainable work patterns debate.

    Also the point about leadership modelling based on social learning theory was nice.

    I originally clicked on the blog link through twitter as I thought it was about business sustnability i.e. environmental sustiability and the picture on the blog eludes to that also. Just wondeirng if i missed the link of the picture to the article?

    • Hey Vanessa! Thanks so much for the kind comments.

      Good call on the pic — turns out, it’s kinda hard to find a picture of “emotional sustainability.” ;-) What I’m trying to do here is expand our notions of what “business sustainability” means. I’m convinced it has to become about more than just taking care of the environment; it has to ALSO be about taking care of the people who then take care of the world — i.e. US.

      Your background is fascinating, by the way. Some of our primary business partners are in the UK, just FYI!

      Looks like you’re up to some great things. Would be great to stay connected!

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