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Is Your 'Strong Work Ethic' Killing You?

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Last week I worked with a client who prides himself on his strong work ethic. Hard work and excellence matter to him (which is awesome!). The problem? He's burning himself out with 14-hour workdays. And he's calling it "strong work ethic."

I asked him if it's really strong, healthy work ethic or if some of his hang-ups might be getting in his way. In other words, is it really strong work ethic or are you letting some of your demons drive the bus?

I'm talking about stuff like having your hands in too many projects because you're afraid to let go of some control. Or failing to empower perfectly capable members of your team because you don't trust them to do a good enough job. Or working at 150 per cent capacity for a one per cent enhancement in output or work quality (spoiler alert: not worth it).

To be totally transparent, I'll go ahead and raise my hand here. Sometimes I let my demons drive the bus. But you know what? It always makes for some pretty shitty outcomes. Always.

Sometimes we come up with sneaky ways to feel noble about overworking ­-- like calling our perfectionistic, control-freak behaviours "strong work ethic." That's not noble; it's fear thinly veiled as virtuous work behaviour.

Perfectionism isn't a commitment to excellence; it's a defense mechanism, and it doesn't make your work better.

Wonder if some of your demons are driving the bus at work? See if you can spot your hang-ups here:

Perfectionism thinly veiled as a commitment to excellence

Yes, it's 10 p.m., but your presentation/report/(insert your deliverable here) isn't quite perfect yet. You tell yourself you just want to do an amazing job, but what you really want is to shield yourself from any criticism or judgment. Do this kind of thing often enough and you'll find yourself burned out and not very on the ball. Which, ironically, leaves you more open to criticism and judgment.

Perfectionism isn't a commitment to excellence; it's a defense mechanism, and it doesn't make your work better. Don't go there.

One-upmanship thinly veiled as devotion

Some people wear their burnout as a badge of honour. In fact some industries have built dysfunctional cultures around this very thing. Industry insiders are expected to drive themselves into the ground in order to be a part of a very exclusive club. And to make things interesting, it's not just an expectation, it's a competition! Bragging rights go to the most miserable, cantankerous and overworked bastards who can survive until they drop dead. It's like The Hunger Games, except with grown-ups in suits.

This kind of one-upmanship is one big fucked up pissing contest of misery and martyrdom, which is not a game you want to win, by the way. Opt out.

Self-exploitation thinly veiled as dependability

I'll just push through this project now so things will be more manageable later. I'll take one for the team. You told yourself that last month, last quarter, and now that you think about it, last year. Only the work never seems to let up.

Pushing through can set a dangerous precedent. It sets unreasonably high expectations for how much you're going to throw yourself into your work. People aren't going to be too psyched when you finally slow down to a more reasonable pace. Why? Because all of a sudden it looks like you can't do your job very well any more -- especially if the people you work with have no idea how much time and effort (not to mention blood, sweat and tears) you're putting in. Don't set a pace you can't maintain.

Avoidance thinly veiled as commitment

You're burning the midnight oil because, frankly, it's better than being somewhere else. You could have a personal life, but there's some stuff there that you'd rather not deal with -- like loneliness or boredom or a crappy relationship. As a person who is divorced, I'll admit this used to be me. Sometimes a late night at the office is better than a tense night at home. Distraction by any means necessary, right?

You won't win employee of the month by logging empty hours like this. You're better off coming out from behind your desk and actually dealing with the uncomfortable stuff you're avoiding. Your personal life will feel infinitely better when you do, and as a bonus your work will improve.

Control issues thinly veiled as leadership

But what if the people I delegate to make a mistake or a bad decision?! That's not a possibility, my friend, it's a certainty. Wait. What? Yes, you read that right -- the people you delegate to are going to make mistakes and bad decisions. Sometimes. Just like you. Because the people you employ and work with are fellow humans -- savvy, talented, hard-working, and occasionally fallible humans. Let them do their jobs. The company won't burn to the ground if you have dinner with your family tonight.

Still breathing into a paper bag? Consider this: your control freak ways are probably clogging up the works with inefficiencies and causing more harm than good. Go home.

Published at Inc and Careergasm.

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