Have you ever heard people say their work comes down to performing in meetings? Do you feel like that sometimes? It’s hard not to if your day consists of back-to-back-to-back meetings, interrupted only for a quick bite, bio breaks and rapid-fire scans of your message feeds. Events of the past two years have only exacerbated the situation for many. We may have traded conference rooms for Zooms, but all of us are still very much on stage at work.
We’ve all worked with people who are shameless performers. In meetings they behave like a comedian with bad material desperately trying to get a laugh from the crowd. Their tricks are easy to spot – nodding like a bobble head at every utterance of the boss, rushing to pile on or echo an idea that has found favor in the room or, conversely, never daring to share an opinion that may make waves.
And prior to the pandemic the performances extended beyond the conference room. Rushing down the hallway with a frown on their face to prove how busy and stressed they were by responsibilities and issues that only they alone understood. Leaving the light and monitor on after they leave to trick people into thinking they still are at work.
These moves seem quaint now in the era of remote work. But the hard core, resourceful office performers have found ways to keep the act going. Comments in shared documents and message channels, pre-scheduled emails and blocked time on calendars offer ample performative opportunities. Even the simple act of logging on to ensure teammates see the green active light can be theater.
And as comical as these acts are in the extreme, the truth is all of us are engaging in a bit of theater at work every day. Perhaps more than a bit. To work, especially in knowledge-based roles, is to perform. And that will always be the case, even as our stages move from conference rooms to Zoom calls.
But while we acknowledge that acting is part of the job, it is worth taking a moment to examine the type of performances our office cultures reward. The egregious over-acting examples of heightened industriousness or allegiance to the boss that I shared previously can be dangerous warning signs for your work culture.
There’s no valor or honor in working seven days a week, 15+ hours a day. Even the investment bankers and lawyers are coming around to this way of thinking, albeit slowly. One can cite the obvious arguments about work/life balance to make the point. But to me the reason for managers not to foster a culture of non-stop work is more fundamental and self-serving – it’s bad for business.
No one does their best work for very long maintaining such a frenetic pace. It is a physiological fact that human beings perform best when they allow for sufficient time to rest and recharge following intense periods of work. Of course, emergencies and last-minute deadlines happen and workers must respond accordingly. But if this becomes a way of life for you or your team it’s a guarantee that the quality of work will suffer. Employees that feel they must portray this level of hyper-dedication to the job are a flashing red light for managers that something is wrong and must be corrected.
As bad as a culture that expects relentless work, one that engenders overt performances of allegiance to the boss are even worse. It’s simple to test: when was the last time someone disagreed with the boss where you work? Do his or her direct reports go out of their way to echo or validate the boss’s ideas or assumptions, even if all the data and evidence says otherwise?
I’ve written about this before, a leader that oversees an environment where his or her employees are afraid to disagree has real problems. No human being has all the answers or can see around every corner. The entire point of building teams is to leverage the unique skill sets and capabilities of individuals to bring more points of view to a challenge. If not given the freedom to think for themselves and express alternative ideas, employees will do neither. You will be left with a bunch of order takers and an underperforming business.
Some may say that the forum in which alternative views are offered matters. Not every meeting is the appropriate place to debate strategy. Undoubtedly this is true. But if the decision whether to raise objections in front of a leader is driven by fear more than timing or other understandable circumstances, than you have a real problem.
It will be interesting to see how our theaters of work evolve as the pandemic recedes and companies adjust their policies. I think it’s safe to say that for millions the old performance tricks from the past are gone for good. But as we’ve seen already for every performance trick technology renders obsolete, it opens the door to new forms of acting. The show must, and indeed always will, go on.