leadership, Reflections & Questions, tips

How your well-meant hypocrisy is hurting your team.


For much of my management career, I found myself repeating the same maxims to my teams:

  • Work hard when you’re at work – but try not to take it home with you.
  • Work-life balance is one of our best benefits.
  • Unplug and enjoy yourself on vacation – things will be FINE here while you’re gone.
  • I don’t expect a response to emails outside of business hours; if there’s a true emergency, I’ll give you a call.
  • Please don’t burn yourself out!

From reading that list, you might think I sound like a fun person to work for. Painful disclosure: I probably wasn’t. Because while I said these things (and truly meant them), for years I did the exact opposite myself.

Examples? I’d get up and log two hours of work before heading into the office and working a full day. I’d take my laptop on vacation and check email multiple times each day. I responded (and even worse – initiated!) email after hours. My early morning productivity bursts meant that my team would open their email at 8am and feel like they were already playing catch-up.

I didn’t see a problem with this. Sure, I wasn’t practicing what I preached, but I was being more generous with my team than I was with myself, so what was the harm?

Simple: You set the tone. When you hire talented, hard-working people who want to do a good job, they will probably look to you as the standard bearer, since you’ve been successful and had the good judgment to hire them. As a result, you can TELL them all day how you value work-life balance and encourage them to “leave it at work,” but if you model the opposite, you’re potentially creating a culture of burn-out.

So how do you fix this? Take your own advice and lead by example.

I can practically hear all the “BUTs” popping up. I know because the other day I was trying to convince a friend of mine (a senior leader) to take a real vacation and just the thought of it triggered her pushback. “But this is a terrible time. But we need a final push to finish Q1 strong. But I just hired a new manager and don’t want to abandon her. But my team needs…”

Right. So let me offer some other thoughts.

On Vacations

  • The “worst time” is often the best time for a vacation. It’s a sign that you’re stressed out – and your work and relationships are probably suffering. When you think you can’t, you probably should.
  • If you’ve hired good people, your team will likely surprise you. Many times in my career I experienced “Vacation Effect,” where my team would set new records or close huge deals while I was away. A bit of space can help empower a team to take ownership – and allow other leaders to emerge.
  • If things DO derail a bit while you’re out, at least it’s helped shine a light on some of the cracks you need to repair to strengthen your team. Better to know now so you can fix it rather than limping along clueless. (And you can limit the potential damage by tapping another leader in the organization to serve as an escalation point in your absence.)

On After-Hours Work

If you feel you really must work after hours (either because you need to or you want to), there are a few things you can do to keep this from setting a bad tone for your team:

  • Respect the hours you’d like your team to keep. If you’re trying to keep your team from working outside the hours of 8am – 6pm, then don’t send them emails during that time. Sure, it’s convenient for you to rattle off notes while it’s top of mind, but it’s sending a signal that after-hour work is expected. Rather than hit send, save the message to your drafts folder and send it at the start of the next business day, or – if you want to get it off your plate so you can forget about it – use a tool like Boomerang where you can schedule it to send at a specific time with one extra click.
  • If your company uses a chat app, change your status to “invisible” or “offline” so people don’t use it as a cue for when they should be working. Be sure to change it on your phone, too, or it will look like you’re available around the clock. Adding this visibility to when you work can spike an escalating competition of people eager to prove they’re burning the midnight oil. And while I appreciate a great work ethic, it’s easy – if a candle is encouraged to burn on both ends – to have a complete melt-down.

Still not buying it, or unable to see how you can make this shift? You may need to do a deeper dive into some of your underlying assumptions and beliefs. I’ll write a separate post with prompts for that inquiry, because unlike employing some of these quick tactics, that will likely require a bit more heavy-lifting.

So. I’m curious: Did any of this ring true? What double-standards are you modeling on your team? What unspoken cues have you taken from leaders yourself? 



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