There’s a persistent belief that if you want to get promoted, you need to do more.
That often means you work longer hours, take on more projects/clients than your peers, answer email on the weekends, volunteer to lead additional committees and teams, and even pitch in to help your colleagues whenever they need it.
As result, you demonstrate to the world you are a leader, a team player, and all around superhuman.
Or at least, that’s how you hope it looks on the outside.
On the inside, you’re exhausted and frequently at the breaking point. Sometimes, you call in sick just to get a small break in your otherwise overwhelming life.
The idea that you’ll wow your bosses by doing more than anyone else is, as I’ll discuss in detail, a terrible strategy. It is much more likely to result in thinning hair, a gaggle of stomach ulcers, and a pillow wet with frustrated tears than a promotion.
But you’ve been working this hard for so long, it actually makes you anxious when you think about slowing down. You imagine all the reputation and goodwill you’ve built up unraveling. It’s not clear anymore where your boss’ expectations end and your internal standards begin.
We live in a culture obsessed with achievement and whether you’re looking out over a sea of cubicles or big executive offices, the message feels the same: either learn to keep up … or get left behind.
And it’s killing you.
Why working less produces better results
In her book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Brigid Schulte delivers some sobering statistics about the workforce today:
Nearly 40 percent of American men and 20 percent of American women with a college education report putting in more than fifty hours a week on the job. [As a result,] an increasing number of workers reported feeling overwhelmed, in poorer health, overworked, depressed, angry at their employers for expecting so much, resentful of others they thought were slacking off, and being so exhausted that they were prone to making mistakes and doing lower-quality work.
But what if the problem isn’t so much your boss’ expectations or a workaholic corporate culture as it is our fundamental beliefs about what it takes to get promoted?
The biggest mistake people make is equating out-working their fellow colleagues with out-performing them.
Rationally you may know that isn’t exactly true, but our behaviors, from executives to interns, tell a very different story. I ought to know, because I was someone who made that very mistake—and paid for it.
When I was mid-career, I took it as a matter of pride to never turn in an assignment late. I followed all the conventional wisdom to distinguish myself. I volunteered for committees (the “ask for more” strategy), took charge of last-minute taskings (the “do more” strategy), and was always the one asked to give tours to visiting VIPs (the “be a team player” strategy).
I wanted to be the kind of employee who, when my management needed something done, I was the person they trusted to get it done right and on time—and my to-do list reflected it. I was often overwhelmed, and as a result, I was forced to do the bare minimum just to keep all the plates spinning.
Now I was lucky. Not to sound like a braggart, of course, but my bare minimum is pretty good. My bosses were reasonably happy with my work and my performance reviews were always positive.
Contrast that with my colleague Karl.
Karl prided himself on blowing off what Michael Bungay Stanier, in his book Do More Great Work, calls “bad work”: the bureaucracies, meetings, and outdated processes that everyone knows are largely a waste of time, but we’re all asked to do them anyway.
So when it came to things like online certification training, travel vouchers, or filing reports, Karl was nearly always late (if he did them at all). He kept his voicemail full and you were lucky to get an email response from him within a week. Even crazier, he found a way to generally keep 9 – 5 working hours, while others with his position came in early and stayed late.
On the surface, Karl doesn’t sound like the ideal, superhuman employee we imagine we have to be to make it to the next level.
Which is why I was shocked when Karl was promoted two years early and put on the leadership fast track, while I got bland compliments and an offer for a lateral move.
It was a hard lesson for an overachiever like me.
I struggled with frustration and bitterness, believing the system wasn’t fair. But as I studied it more, I discovered the primary problem wasn’t the system.
The problem was that I didn’t understand the real rules of the game.
The smartest employees play by different rules
The first mental shift is to realize that not all requests from your boss are created equal.
What I learned from Karl, and others like him, is you can get away with a lot if you become a lynchpin at the things your boss really cares about. But becoming a lynchpin takes time and focus—you’re never going to get there if you’re overworked and mentally exhausted.
What I didn’t tell you about Karl was that he had been put in charge of a dysfunctional team that caused upper management a lot of headaches—and he completely turned that team around. Within a year, his team was being lauded as one of the most productive. And the people working for him loved him.
He was able to do this because he focused about 95% of his energy on finding and fixing the issues that were impacting team performance. It wasn’t straight forward or easy work. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Karl didn’t work hard.
But working hard wasn’t what got Karl promoted.
What mattered was that he made his bosses look good and he made their lives easier.
Not only do we feel bad when we try to do it all—mentally, emotionally, and physically—but recent studies from the University of London show that multi-tasking can produce significant drops in your IQ. In men, the mental hit from multi-tasking turned them into the cognitive equivalent of an 8-year-old.
The lesson here? Always trying to make your boss happy in the short-term isn’t a smart strategy for promotion in the long-term.
Why you can’t lose sight of the bigger game
It’s easy to convince yourself that what your boss wants and what you want are two different things.
But you probably have more in common than you realize. Chances are you both want to make as big an impact as possible. And you both want results like yesterday.
To lose sight of those commonalities is to lose sight of the bigger game that’s being played … and that you and your boss are on the same team.
That means your number one goal should be to intimately understand what your boss cares about more than anything else. The tricky part is, your boss may not articulate her top priority.
Karl’s boss didn’t specifically tell him to turn things around—it just became apparent his team caused his boss a lot of stress.
So you may have to experiment a bit to figure out how you can accomplish more by doing less.
The best way to do that is to talk to your boss frankly about why a specific task should be eliminated, delayed, or given to someone else. This conversation needs to be about impact, not your own personal needs or preferences. This article has some great ideas on how to tell your boss no without getting fired.
The other option, which is a bit more risky, is to try ignoring requests.
Following in Karl’s lead, I tried this myself with tasks I felt confident weren’t very important. When I was right, nothing happened—no one even inquired about my missing assignment. When I was wrong, my boss reminded me and I quickly got the work done, often in a fraction of the time, because that’s all I had.
More importantly, there were no long term consequence to these experiments. The better I got at identifying (and delivering) the work my bosses really cared about, the more autonomy and responsibility I was given.
It’s time to take your work seriously
The good news is that you don’t have to satisfy your boss’ every whim or try to become superhuman to be successful.
The bad news is that you’re going to have to take a lot more responsibility—for your own career and the results you create.
Because you weren’t hired for your endurance, you were hired for your initiative and intelligence.
It’s time to use them.
You just have to muster the courage to stand up to the pressures that keep you overwhelmed and running in circles.
As scary as that sounds, it’s a big part of what it means to be a leader.
The benefit is that not only do you free up more time for higher impact work, but you demonstrate you’re thinking more strategically about the organization’s goals and performance—something you’ll need if you want to get promoted.