Performance on the job can be pretty subjective.
Are you committed? Do you demonstrate creative problem-solving abilities? Are you a team player? None of these things are easy to measure.
It’s tempting to look instead at more obvious, quantitative data, like how much time you spend doing work. Were you at your desk when the boss walked in at 7 a.m.? Did you spend the whole weekend taking client phone calls? Check, check!
Unfortunately, that second system is pretty easy to game. And in 2015, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business found evidence of just that: According to her study of employees at a top consulting firm, many men were only pretending to work 80-hour weeks.
It’s a strategy that the professor, Erin Reid, calls “passing,” or creating the impression of being always on, while in reality finding ways to scale back. For example, one consultant took periodic phone calls while, unbeknownst to his boss, he was on a ski trip with his family.
In the June 2016 issue of The Harvard Business Review, Reid and Lakshmi Ramarajan, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, argue for evaluating tangible results, as opposed to the number of hours spent working.
They say the practice of evaluating how much people seem to work encourages workers to be disingenuous about how many hours they’re logging — and it’s a common “trap” for managers to fall into.
One senior consultant, for example, told them that successful consultants need to have the “high-five factor,” which means “they have spent so much time on-site with the client that when they enter the client’s building, employees give them high fives.”
The authors recommend a significant shift in evaluating performance:
We propose that managers reduce the incentives for passing (and the costs of revealing) by encouraging people to focus on achieving their goals and measuring actual results rather than hours invested. For example, instead of celebrating a high-five factor based on time spent with the client, managers could praise employees for the quality of the advice provided or the number of repeat engagements secured.
As an example of a more sustainable work environment, they cite one employee who said her boss discouraged working late nights because he viewed it as a sign of inefficiency.
That makes sense in light of recent research by Robin Ely, which suggests that the time people spend “working” isn’t always so productive. (I personally experimented with cutting back my work hours, and found that I was about as productive as usual.)
If employers adopted the management shift that Reid and Ramarajan propose, they could presumably do a better job of rewarding deserving workers. Instead of praising and promoting those who supposedly work 80-hour weeks, they would praise and promote those who best contribute to the organisation.
Of course, that means finding ways to evaluate employee contributions without qualitative data like hours logged. It’s not an easy shift to make, but it could be well worth it.
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